Nothing underlines the importance of Sir Ron Dearing's recent review of l6 to l9 qualifications more urgently than last week's figures showing a fall in the staying-on rate at l6 (page 16). The initial welcome for his report was too rapidly obscured by A-level preoccupations and disappointment that he had not been able to move further and faster to bring the three qualifications pathways more closely together.
And yet one of the most vital parts of Sir Ron 's message - and certainly one of his own priorities - concerned that disaffected one-fifth of the age group leaving education and training with no qualifications whatever.His solution had two main thrusts: one to provide for l4-year-olds utterly demotivated by the formal school examination treadmill the chance of hands-on vocational work in college or workplace; the other to ensure that all school-leaver training schemes were tied to worthwhile qualifications rather than time-filling expedients.
The school-leaver statistics from the Careers Service Association are not correlated in any way with the current qualifications deficit, and at present we can only guess at connections. What we do know is that the steady rise in the l6-year-old staying-on rate over the last seven years has begun to turn down. It could be a blip or the start of a downward trend, but at a time when the size of the age-group is rising and the demand for advanced skills is more insistent, we cannot afford to ignore it. We were only just starting to catch up with our international competitors on retaining l6-year-olds in education or training, and continue to lag on l7-year-olds.
We don't yet know what is happening to the missing teenagers or why. They evidently haven't been lured into dead end jobs, but have disappeared into unemployment or limbo, and the growing poverty sector. Have they been turned off by the increasingly rigorous demands of GCSE, and found the current diet of vocational qualifications equally unappealing?
We need to find out more, but we cannot ignore the apparent alienation of a growing number of young people. So it is welcome news that this week the Government announced its first steps towards putting the Dearing recommendations into effect (FE Focus, page 28). As John Capey proposed in an earlier report commended by Dearing, the general national vocational qualification is to be revamped with the emphasis on quality and drastically simplified assessment. Pounds 10 million is to be put into staff development, curriculum support, improved information and Dearing implementation. It ought to make staying-on in school or college both more attractive and worthwhile, and it can't come a moment too soon.