Rough guide from Europe

19th October 2012 at 01:00

On 2 October, Ed Miliband gave an unexpectedly compelling keynote address at the Labour Party conference in Manchester, galvanising his party in moving towards the 2015 general election.

He was persuasive and engaging as he focused on youth unemployment and reforming the education system so that it works for everyone - including the "forgotten 50 per cent" who do not go to university.

I was especially interested in the creation of a German-style Technical Baccalaureate (TechBac), a gold-standard qualification based on a mixture of vocational training and compulsory work experience. Miliband is positioning this TechBac as a viable alternative to Michael Gove's more academic English Baccalaureate Certificate. However, those achieving the qualification would still have to pass maths and English courses to ensure that they have the necessary numeracy and literacy skills.

There is certainly a lot we can learn from continental-style vocational education. Take Switzerland: it has one of the most successful apprenticeship systems in the world and, consequently, youth unemployment of just 7.5 per cent, according to the most recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (In the UK, the figure is 21.9 per cent.) The challenge for the UK sector is to replicate this kind of model with the same success.

Of course, a lot of work has already been done in raising the status of vocational qualifications in the UK. Apprenticeships continue to grow in popularity following the recent increase in university tuition fees, and there has been substantial government investment in this area. However, more needs to be done to change perceptions - the vocational route is still not held in the same esteem as its academic counterpart.

It's my belief that every young person is different, armed with individual talents and skills that should be nurtured and recognised. Of course students should be competent in core subjects such as English and maths, but this does not need to be to the detriment of high-quality, rigorously assessed practical qualifications. After all, for every budding doctor there is an aspiring music technician or travel rep.

The important thing is for each young person to achieve their full potential, leaving the education system as a well-rounded individual who possesses the motivation to succeed combined with the qualities and skills that employers need.

We should all be working together to improve the prospects of young people as the key to economic growth - there needs to be a collective sense of responsibility among educational establishments, awarding bodies, employers and those in government. At the awarding body NCFE, for example, we have formed a partnership with Reed, the recruitment specialist, to position colleges as effective recruitment centres for local businesses as well as being places of learning.

Labour's proposed TechBac comes at a time when the sector is already overwhelmed by change. However, this is one policy that looks to be a step in the right direction, ensuring that the "forgotten 50 per cent" are not forgotten, but are instead celebrated for their achievements and instilled with the confidence they need to progress in their lives.

David Grailey is chief executive of awarding body NCFE.

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