VOCATIONAL education should begin in schools and be put on a par with academic subjects, according to a forum of thinkers from post-16 education.
The Government should boost funding for vocational teaching in schools and create a Minister for Vocational Education and Training. And better links between employers and schools and universities should be encouraged to shift our culture away from academic education and help overcome "rampant elitism" in our education system.
These were some of the conclusions in a round-table forum of policy-makers, academics and post-16 education providers. This was the third in a series of TES-sponsored debates held by the awarding body City amp; Guilds - the subject was Why Qualify? Years of successive government changes to education and training have resulted in a chaotic and confusing qualifications system, the forum heard.
In other European countries vocational qualifications are part of the education system. But the UK has a largely market-driven system with too many qualifications.
Unlike European counterparts, in the UK, vocational qualifications have always been outside the education system, said Lorna Unwin, professor in vocational education at the University of Leicester. "We have countless visitors from Europe who come and say explain your system," she said. "You start to show them the timetable for change going back to the early 1980s and every single year there have been changes in education and training.
"They cannot believe it, and that's because they hardly change their systems. They tinker a bit, but it's social partnership agreements when they do the tinkering."
The new local Learning and Skills Councils should play a powerful role in bringing together partners to develop vocational education for their own regions, she said. "We should have a Minister for Vocational Education," Ms Unwin added. "I think vocational education needs its own parameters. And it needs to be massively funded and the quality improved We should have good quality vocational education in schools and we should fund the training of vocational teachers substantially."
Steve Broomhead, chief executive of Warrington Borough Council, said that there were too many qualifications. "I think it's a government policy issue," he said. "The QCA and others ought to look at the number of awarding bodies."
The forum also explored the issue of elitism in education. NVQs are seen by some as meaning "not very qualified", while companies still recruit graduates mainly on the basis of academic hierarchies which begin with Oxford and Cambridge. "There's still an issue about where you gain your qualification, more in higher education than anywhere else in post-16," said Mr Broomhead He added: "We should get rid of the rampant elitism in education which you do not find to the same degree in other European countries.
"We need parity of esteem in schools for vocational education and business links. The key to it is our schools, to shift the whole culture away from academic achievement."
Colin Deal, business development director of Prometric Thomson Learning, said qualifications have become so complex, employers fail to understand them and how they interact.
"Small and medium-sized enterprises are delighted that such intelligent and qualified people are going to be their future employees," he said.
"But they don't know how to assess the products of Luton University compared with Durham University. So what do they do? They retreat to choosing a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge because someone has said they're the best quality graduates.
"Now they may be totally inappropriate because the current environment is one where you've actually got a life full of jobs instead of jobs for life.
"Graduates from other universities may be better equipped to continue what now has to be a lifelong learning process."
Previous debates in the series available on www.tesfefocus.co.uk (News on the Web Archive)