Despite improvements in secondary education, Britain's young people still lag behind our competitors in participation and achievement. GCSEs have motivated many youngsters and raised standards, but too few stay in education or training after 16. Not enough learn a trade and the A-level track is still too narrow, even after Curriculum 2000.
In last month's Governmetn policy paper 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence, Secretary of State Charles Clarke calls on schools, colleges, training organisations and employers to work together to "put the needs of students at the centre of 14-19 provision". Every young person must be offered choices with clear routes of progress to further education, training and employment, whatever their ability.
Although the proportion of 16-year-olds gaining GCSEs grade A*-C has gone up from 37 per cent to more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years, many of the rest regard their D-to-G grades as a badge of failure and are turned off learning. We have failed many of the young people who need a credible vocational route, says the Government.
14-19: Opportunity and Excellence is the Government's response to its consultation Green Paper 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards, issued in February 2002. The Green Paper received 2,000 written responses and 4,000 responses in consultations with young people.
After a quarter-century in which the education system has been driven from the centre, the Government wants a culture shift to a flexible system where institutions work in partnership to respond to the needs of individual learners. Young people must get support to navigate their learning route from 14 to 19, with access to school, college and training provider or employer.
The Government's vision is for more choice at 14, with a clear track to future education and employment, and with the option to change track if required. Vocational education must be strengthened and given parity of esteem with academic learning, an elusive goal which continues to have its doubters.
Young people will also be offered practical skills for life and work, as well as analytical and thinking skills. Access will be through a range of initiatives, with schools and colleges working in partnership, not competition. The new careers service Connexions aims to provide a joined-up support and advice service for 14 to19-year-olds nationwide this year. From next year, means-tested Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs) will give 16 to 18-year-olds up to pound;40 a week.
The reforms will mean big changes for the curriculum, qualifications and local management and funding. The key stage 4 curriculum will be more flexible, although not before 2004-05. The only core elements will be those the Government believes are necessary for further progression or personal development. English, Maths and Science will be compulsory, along with ICT (eventually taught through other subjects) and citizenship, RE, sex education, careers education and PE. All students will also learn about work and enterprise.
Everyone will have an entitlement to another language, a humanities subject, an arts subject and design and technology, as well as continued help with literacy, numeracy and computer skills up to Level 2 (GCSE A*-C or equivalent) up to the age of 19. Schools and colleges will be encouraged to enter students for exams when they are ready, rather than on reaching a particular age.
The GCSE is here to stay, although the Government wants it to be seen as a "progress check" rather than a leaving certificate. Eight vocational subjects, counting as double awards, have been introduced this year. They will be followed by "hybrid" courses, with a compulsory core accompanied by general and applied options.
But labels matter. Britain has traditionally regarded academic education as the norm, with vocational options for those who aren't up to it. So in future, GCSEs will be called "specialist" where they have a particular application to an area of employment, or "general" where they follow the more traditional pattern.
The "vocational" distinction is also being dropped from A-level terminology. The General National Vocational Qualification is already being partially phased out. Initial teacher training and leadership programmes will be developed to include the 14-19 strategy. Collaboration between schools and colleges will make greater demands on local management and funding. Future local funding should take account of the costs of students attending more than one institution.
Area reviews of teaching and learning 16-19 - carried out by the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate - will be expanded to cover all 14 to 19-year-olds. LEAs and local Learning and Skills Councils are required to draw up action plans to address any shortcomings found in these reviews. Local LSCs will also have to review progression routes on offer from 16 to higher education in their area.
Education ministers do not want to impose a model of collaboration from the centre. Instead, they are funding local experiments to find examples of best practice.
Pupils at key stage 4 will be allowed to spend part of their time on specialist studies outside school under the Increased Flexibility Programme. They could take a GCSE or work towards vocational qualifications at a college, training organisation or in industry. More than 2,000 schools are already involved.
Operating on a larger scale, Pathfinders is looking at ways of extending and improving opportunities by bringing together all kinds of organisations, from LEAs to business, the local community and further and higher education.
In the long term, the Government believes the reforms will work only if the qualifications the young people receive make sense to them, their parents, employers and higher education. A clear national framework is needed that acknowledges what has been achieved and marks out a route for future progress.
That task has fallen to ex-chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, who chairs a working group to make sense of the whole 14-19 qualifications framework. His remit is to come up with a system that will acknowledge achievement at all levels of ability, strengthen the vocational offer, make assessment fit for its purpose and succeed in encouraging many more young people to continue learning after 16 (see opposite page).