Poll responses mixed on work-led studies
Parents and business leaders, interviewed in detail by MORI, think work-related courses at key stage 3 would be superficial, push children into career choices too early and risk the development of streaming by the back door. The group of 12 employers and 30 parents, chosen as a cross-section of society from two regions, think pupils under 16 should concentrate on core subjects.
But a general opinion poll by Gallup found that four out of five people backed the principle of General National Vocational Qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds, which are due to be piloted in science, manufacturing, the built environment and health and social care next year alongside the GCSE.
Gallup, finding broad support for the national curriculum among 1,060 people, asked whether "pupils should be able to take work-related courses alongside standard school subjects during their secondary education". It found 82 per cent agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 7 per cent which disagreed or strongly disagreed.
MORI, which interviewed parents in small groups for 90 minutes, found support for traditional teaching of English and history, based on Standard English for written work and dates of kings and queens. But there was less enthusiasm in the survey - part of the Dearing review consultation - for prescribed reading lists and the correction of accents, or the Prime Minister's desire for compulsory team sports. Employers and parents both want children to learn multiplication by rote. But business took a more liberal view of history, wanting pupils to be able to evaluate evidence and see two sides of an argument.
The discussion groups, made up of parents of secondary and primary pupils from Bromley, Kent, and Kettering, Northamptonshire, came out strongly against work-related courses. One parent commented: "I think it is too early and at the expense of the more basic skills that they should be attaining at that age." Another added: "It's a bit like the 11-plus; the low achievers go and do metalwork and the others do physics and chemistry." Employers, chosen from major industries and industrial organisations, feel schools and teachers may be unable to cope with the new qualifications and want children to learn skills that are "transferable and flexible".
SCAA chairman Sir Ron Dearing backed the Gallup survey. He said: "Both from that and what I hear again and again from teachers, I believe there is a space for vocational education."
Professor Alan Smithers, of Manchester University education department, said: "Everyone needs a good background of general education before receiving specialist training related to jobs. If a child is not clear about the job they want, it is wrong to force the pace."
But he said applied learning could be important in stimulating pupils and GNVQs should have greater general education content. There is a lot of confusion among parents as to what vocational education really means, added the professor. Applied learning meant showing how academic skills are used in everyday situations.
The MORI study also found: * Some parents think "classic" literature is irrelevant and that the requirement to study Shakespeare could deter children from reading.
* Employers feel the choice of reading should be left to teachers' professional judgment, although they want a "basic entitlement to read certain books".
* Although most parents are against set texts, a minority wanted a range of recommended books.
The Gallup survey found that 83 per cent of people had heard of the national curriculum.
More than half (51 per cent) "strongly agreed" that English, maths and science are more important than other subjects.