Practical magic needed

24th June 2005 at 01:00
The real test of the 14-19 review will be whether it increases skills and job chances, says Helen Yewlett.

The young man is really brilliant at building computers. All he wants to do is mend or make them for a living. And he could do. If we consider vocational skills to be the specific skills needed to work in a particular occupation, he is ahead of the game.

Yet I have serious worries about whether he will manage to pass GCSE information and communications technology. He does not see the relevance.

And as for other subjects, well, they are a bit of a waste of time, aren't they?

Learning Pathways, the Assembly government's agenda for reform of the 14-19 curriculum, is intended to broaden the range of academic, vocational and work-based courses available to teenagers. Meanwhile, education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson is to appoint a vocational skills champion to promote the value of vocational learning at all levels and to all parties, including employers.

We do need a vocational skills champion in Wales for this young man, and for the many like him, who simply are not suited to an academic environment. But it will be interesting to see how the role of the champion develops because there are many issues and real challenges to address.

For example, we were interested in using a course specialising in huge databases instead of A-level computing. The course has been developed by Oracle, a leading IT company. The level 3 advanced certificate for IT practitioners is accredited by the OCR exam board.

The advantage of taking the course would be an Oracle qualification as well as an extremely good industry-standard qualification, making our students highly desirable in the workplace.

Why didn't we follow it through? Simply because many pupils take computing as a third A-level and we had to check that medical colleges and universities would accept the Oracle course as a proper A-level. On first enquiries to admission tutors, it looked unlikely that this would be the case.

So we need a vocational czar to sort out these problems of accreditation and exam equivalence. If a student takes a vocational course at the same standard as an academic course, then the student must be able to go on to the next stage of education if he wants to.

How in Wales are we going to ensure every pupil receives their entitlement to three weeks' work experience? The problem of lack of suitable placements has at least been identified and there are proposals for skill centres where schools can send pupils in the absence of suitable industrial places.

Twenty years ago, before the national curriculum, schools had more flexibility to offer different areas of study. Youngsters had horticulture lessons and community project lessons.

I remember one of our headers*, a young man not known for his intellectual prowess, refusing to hang a hanging basket on some railings for me. "Miss, if it falls, it could hit a child and kill it," he said. It turned out he had learned this from his rural studies teacher. We need these courses back in schools - practical courses that kids enjoy.

Most of Wales has breathtakingly beautiful countryside. The land needs to be worked. We need youngsters who can plait hedge fences and build dry stone walls, and we have a really worrying countryside skills shortage. So we need to champion the vocational skills here, too.

Links between schools and further education colleges need to be strengthened. For example, in England, youngsters taking exam board Edexcel's diploma in digital applications study the course at their local FE course several days of the week. The course is equivalent to four GCSEs, with the possibility of accreditation by MacroMedia, the IT firm responsible for Dreamweaver, the web design programme.

Many is the youngster I have seen in school who would have thrived on such a scheme, who instead struggled to get a few academic GCSEs.

Recently, we were able to send some youngsters for an extended period of study leave to our nearest ITEC, one of a national network of IT education centres originally developed as part of a Department of Trade and Industry initiative. To my delight, they came back to tell me that the centre had invited them to return in September - they had found a vocational niche that suited them.

So yes, we need a vocational skills champion. And may he or she have the resources needed to help Wales deliver the vision in Learning Pathways.

But the biggest problem will be the sheer volume of work facing those people who have the skills needed to deliver the 14-19 vision. They will need our goodwill and help to develop our youngsters in the right way.

* Header - a kid who is virtually unteachable, probably disruptive, totally uninterested in school. Also used in the south Wales valleys for a rugby player who gets so psyched up that the opposition realises it is wiser not to argue with him.

Helen Yewlett is head of information and communications technology at Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera, Neath Port Talbot

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