Time to build bridges post-16

26th April 1996 at 01:00
A training leader wants fights for students to stop. Lucy Ward reports. Employers and full-time education providers must stop competing for young people if Sir Ron Dearing's reforms are to succeed, according to a leading figure in training and vocational education.

David Cragg, chief executive of Birmingham Training and Enterprise Council and a man who helped shape the TEC national council response to Dearing's recent report, insists the review must form a basis for "bridge-building" between schools and colleges and the workplace.

In making his assertions, he draws on initial evidence from two multi-million pound initiatives in Birmingham - the biggest of the kind in the UK - in which many of the traditional boundaries between education and the workplace have been torn down.

Mr Cragg said Sir Ron's determination to make it easier for students to transfer between courses and into work must be extended to pupils under 16 and adults over 19.

Sir Ron laid out two clear but ambitious strategies - to break down the academic-vocational divide still bedevilling the English system, and to emphasise the key skills of numeracy, communication and information technology.

His proposed new qualifications structure is designed chiefly to bring vocational qualifications into line with A-levels. This will involve boosting the quality and status of vocational qualifications, and breaking both sorts of award into similar sized chunks to aid parity and, in theory, help pupils study a mix of both.

Mr Cragg hopes a more flexible system will support his key goal of smoother transfer from full-time education into the workplace and work-based learning.

The process will require "an end to perceived competition for young people between employers and full-time education", together with more equal funding.

The TECs resent a funding system for youth education and training perceived to favour schools and colleges.

Central to new improved transferability, he says, will be the core skills renamed "key skills" and strongly emphasised in Sir Ron's report.

Birmingham is already breaking new ground in this area with the launch last year of a TEC and LEA-backed campaign to boost core and basic skills across all age groups, backed with Pounds 30 million of redevelopment cash.

"We have seen this as a fundamental platform for improving achievement, " says Mr Cragg. "It has engaged not just young people and individuals who had needs in those areas but parents and employers and education and training professionals."

The partnership approach has been central to the initiative, which has seen employers release staff as volunteers to help boost the school pupils' reading.

The successful experiment prompts Mr Cragg to call for a broader approach than Dearing suggested to tackling the problem of disaffected 14-year-olds.

Another TEC-LEA initiative, dubbed the "University of the First Age" by Birmingham chief education officer Tim Brighouse, focuses on boosting the learning of 11 to 14-year-olds. Closely linked to the core skills campaign, the drive has involved encouraging schools and colleges to open at weekends to offer youngsters the chance to learn outside the usual hours.

Employers too have been supportive to open their own on-site learning centre. Several small businesses now boast flourishing workforce training schemes and are also open to families at weekends.

Such developments have the capacity to draw in parents as well as youngsters, so reaching those the core educational system may not reach, says Mr Cragg. Traditional lines between schools, workplaces and communities are blurring, and can blur further with the aid of a new qualifications structure.

"Conventional solutions to under-achievement and disaffection must be put on one side. We have got to be much more imaginative and come up with something radical if we want to break the cycle of disaffection."

There is also scope for more radical steps at the opposite end of the age range addressed in Sir Ron's review, Mr Cragg believes.

He calls for a shake up of the present system of income support to provide a level playing field not only for the third of young people who opt to enter higher education at 19 but also the two-thirds who do not. Sir Ron's next review, examining structure and funding of HE, must tackle the issue, since the current "plethora" of this kind of support can hit individuals' chances of progression.

"The review must address how you support professionals to the same level of qualifications and skills across the board, not just within universities. "

The theme of progression must also underpin developments in the work-based route, Mr Cragg believes. Like the TEC national council, he is cautious over Sir Ron's proposal to relaunch Youth Training as a system of National Traineeships, preferring to "build on what we have got".

The key is to smooth the path from school to foundation and intermediate training and finally Modern Apprenticeship.

While the TEC chief executive may seek more radical change than Sir Ron, he believes the review went far enough to provide a platform for change.

"In Britain we have been lousy at building bridges between education and employment. Once we get into employment it does not mean we should stop learning. Now we should put up and start bridging the gaps."

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