THE 17th-century English philosopher John Locke argued that even the gentleman's son should learn a trade, lest he fell on hard times. Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools offered us a variation on this theme at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference this week when he suggested that 14-year-olds who were bored with education should be able to spend part of their week learning a practical skill such as plumbing.
In a way, there was nothing exceptional about Chris Woodhead's seemingly commonsensical comment. Countless politicians and government-commissioned studies have said much the same thing over the years. It is, however, always easier to recommend that other people's children - or other schools' pupils - get to grips with a leaking U-bend. Whoever Mr Woodhead's message was aimed at it was surely not the families who spend pound;16,000 a year on a Winchester education. They appreciate that, although it would be ideal if all children learned how to wire a plug, it is even more important that they leave school with credible qualifications that enable them to progress up the educational and professional ladders.
That is why the Barking and Dagenham solution to the perennial problem of disaffected 14 and 15-year-olds - tailor-made vocational GCSEs - seems more constructive. The London borough's action may displease the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority officials who are promoting GNVQ part one, the now nationally-available qualification that is supposed to offer a vocational alternative to GCSE. But it is not difficult to see why the borough has issued its unilateral declaration of independence.
It will be many years, if ever, before GNVQ part one is understood by employers and the wider public. Vocational GCSEs, on the other hand, should have immediate currency, particularly as local employers were involved in their development. In any case, the borough now has the confidence to go it alone having successfully imported interactive maths-teaching methods from Switzerland.
But experience suggests that Barking and Dagenham's vocational GCSEs will survive only if they extend beyond the borough's boundary and continue to attract high-ability pupils. If they come to be regarded as exams for problem pupils the initiative will die the same death as the Certificate of Pre-vocational Education, and CSE Mode 3. And no one will mourn their passing.