A consensus on post-compulsory education is beginning to emerge north and south of the border and between the main parties as Labour this week backed most of the key elements in the Dearing review on 16-19 education in England and Wales. The emphasis on vocational qualifications alongside academic ones is akin to that in the Higher Still programme.
Under Labour's plans, produced in consultation with Sir Ron Dearing, 14-year-olds could attend college part-time, youth trainees would be guaranteed an education in core skills, and vocational qualifications would be overhauled. The party proposes a staged framework of qualifications to span both academic and vocational courses with a National Qualifications Authority in charge.
These elements are likely to appear in Sir Ron's review, which is due to be published next week. Party spokesmen were this week insistent that the conclusions of Aiming Higher: Labour's plans for reform of the 14 to 19 curriculum were arrived at independently.
Labour says the current "piecemeal" system "constrains achievement, underminds aspirations and inhibits choices". Each of the three separate "routes" to qualification are criticised. A-levels are "excessively narrow" for modern society. School-based vocational awards are too narrow in scope, and bedevilled by bureaucracy. National vocational qualifications in the workplace are complex, jargon ridden, costly and lacking in rigour.
The document has received general approval, although concern has been voiced at plans to let 14-year-olds spend one day a week at college on vocational courses.
"The critical issue is that the curriculum from 14 to 19 has to be reformed, " a spokesman for the National Union of Teachers said. "What we would not welcome is an institutional divide for students based on a false perception of needs. There is no guarantee that truanting pupils in schools will not continue to truant in further education. We cannot assume that vocational education is an automatic answer."