New platform to train was worth the wait

14th February 2003 at 00:00
It's been a dismal couple of weeks for those of us who are still childishly clinging to the hope that nice Mr Blair simply can't be as awful as he seems.

We've had to swallow his desire to make the House of Lords fully appointed (so he can still dole out peerages as part of his political horse-trading); the dreadful sucking up to George Bush; Derry Irvine's pay rise; and, above all, the disgusting use of out-of-date plagiarised documents cobbled together by Number 10 spin doctors in a desperate and insulting attempt to persuade us all to go to war. Did we really wait 18 years for this?

But not all waiting is in vain. Ruminating on Education Secretary Charles Clarke's new strategy for 14-19 education, I realised that a plan I dreamed up 18 years ago, coincidentally, looks like coming to pass. Could it be that the needs of young people who are bored by the normal school curriculum are going to be taken seriously at last?

In 1985, I wrote a quickly forgotten Fabian pamphlet: "Who Controls Training?" Written some time before the advent of the national curriculum, GCSE or NVQs, it looked at how the Government was using the Manpower Services Commission to get more vocational education into schools since, in those pre-Baker days, the Department of Education had no effective levers it could pull.

In a somewhat utopian section about the future, I suggested that the 14-18 curriculum should be entirely recast. There should be no school-leaving exam at 16, but an entirely modular curriculum for those four years, each module lasting for 10 weeks.

Of course, certain units could be linked to form coherent academic courses similar to those which exist today. But the key innovation was that the modules could be academic or vocational, and based in schools, colleges or workplaces. Young people would be able to mix and match them and, in particular, those who at 14 or 15 were fed up with school, and were truanting or getting their kicks from disruption, could experience learning in a new environment run by adults who were not necessarily teachers.

Of course, I got a lot of stick from certain people who accused me of trying to "lower the school-leaving age to 14". But this was absolutely not the case. The whole point was that work placements would be carefully monitored to fit in with a programme of education and development which would accept that certain young people felt that they had little more to gain from school. Crucially, the option to return to mainstream education, even after several modules in the workplace, would always be there.

The underlying hope was that such young people, once exposed to the tough world of work, would understand how much they still had to learn.

Interestingly, a recent school-based project sponsored by Rowntree, known as "Into Work", has shown that disaffected youths aged 14 to 16 gained confidence through spending time in the workplace and "being treated like men". They began to behave more like adults, too. What's more, they started to refocus on their schoolwork, with remarks such as "the course helped me to remember the qualifications that I will need" and "it taught me not to be afraid to get help".

Since 1989, the national curriculum has made such groundbreaking initiatives difficult to organise. But Charles Clarke's new strategy, although it still doesn't go as far as it might, offers a sound basis on which we can build.

For more information on the Into Work project, see www.jrf.org.uk

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