A major report has condemned Britain's inability to give its young people the skills they need. By Harvey McGavin.
Britain's vocational training system is incoherent, confusing and in need of a complete overhaul, according to a major review of work-related education.
In its second report, "Delivering Skills for All", the government-appointed skills task force says the present system "falls short in both quality and quantity" and proposes a "radical agenda for reform".
The task force - 19 educationists, industrialists and union chiefs - calls for increased skills training for all young people, improved careers information and a new emphasis on key skills for jobs.
The report makes dozens of recommendations designed to "raise the status" of vocational training so that it becomes a "positive choice" for more young people and calls for a high-quality "mixed economy" system to increase both participation and attainment.
Here we summarise its findings.
Mathematical and computing skills are highly valued by employers and people should be persuaded of their importance, the report says.
"There is far too little incentive or opportunity for either our young people or adults to develop their mathematical skills beyond basic levels...the contrast with other European and North American systems is dramatic." In France more than 60 per cent study maths to AS-level and in the USA, 90 per cent of schoolchildren study the subject for 12 years. An "overarching certificate", to include maths, would be a possible interim solution to the debate over baccalaureate-style qualifications.
The success of any attempt to improve the nation's numeracy depends on teachers feeling confident and comfortable with the subject, otherwise "their ability to support students...is compromised".
Recommendations * Targets - supported by a high-profile media campaign - for the continuation of maths in school, college and adult numeracy programmes.
* Discounted maths training to match the information technology discounts announced by the Chancellor in March.
* Government should reconsider multi-subject qualifications at 16 and 18 which require minimum levels of competence in maths.
* Training and professional development for maths teachers.
National training organisations suffer from small and variable amounts of public funding and their role in promoting work-based training is limited, the report says.
The success of work-based training depends on the willingness of small and medium-sized business to get involved, the report says. In Australia, group training associations have shown that collaborative arrangements can help to pool expertise and share the cost of expensive equipment.
Recommendations * National training organisations should become better at pro-moting and developing work-based training.
* A dedicated budget and government assistance to help small firms work together to train apprentices.
* All trainers of apprentices should have appropriate qualifications.
Information and communications technology should be regarded as the third basic skill alongside numeracy and literacy, but employers report "alarmingly low" levels of competence.
People living in deprived communities should be targeted. "Improving access to ICT forms a useful bridge within families and communities, with parents and grandparents learning alongside children." The estimated 800 ICT qualifications on offer are "far too many", leading to doubts about quality.
Recommendations * The success of the BBC's Computers Don't Bite season - which involved 200,000 people in taster sessions - should be built on.
* Public-private partnerships to offer user-friendly ICT facilities.
* By 2002, use of ICT should be integral to all FE and training courses. Teachers and lecturers should be able to build on their skills.
There are 840 national vocational qualifications - some of which have never been awarded, the report says - and 17,000 other vocational qualifications. Duplication is commonplace, some are regarded as "unduly narrow" or "poorly aligned" with national occupational standards.
The report complains of "the extraordinary plethora and incoherence of vocational qualifications in the UK, which employers, training providers and individuals alike have told us cause massive confusion and reduce perceived value of the vocational system as a whole."
Recommendations * Drastic reduction in number of vocational qualifications.
* Implementation of the key findings of the Beaumont review of NVQs.
* Introduction of "related vocational qualifications" (RVQs), assessing the knowledge underpinning NVQs, and linked to occupational standards,. These should help ease career changes.
* Separate assessment of knowledge and understanding for NVQs, reducing burden of assessment on employers.
PARTICIPATION AND ACHIEVEMENT
One quarter of young people fail to achieve a level 2 qualification by the time they are 20. "Most of these young people are very capable," the report says. "The problem is that they are often turned off by the formal education system and are affected by a culture of low expectations." National traineeships and other government training schemes are "confusing and unsatisfactory".
Earlier intervention for those unlikely to stay on after 16 would help prevent bad career choices and reduce the numbers leaving school without qualifications. The report says: "A firm understanding of the qualifications and skills they will need to enter the careers which attract them will better motivate them while still at school."
Recommendations * Structured career advice from Year 7. From Year 9, timetabled classes in vocational guidance, work experience aimed at pupils most likely to leave school at 16, and more parental involvement.
* Swift implementation of a vocational option for 14 to 16-year-olds offering "stretching and occupationally-focused qualifications".
* National Traineeships to become Foundation Apprenticeships thus improving progression to Modern Apprenticeships.
More than half of current jobs require level 3 (or higher) qualifications. Good skills will be the key to future employability, the report says, and a "significant extra commitment on the part of the state" is needed to give people more time and opportunity to reach that level.
Recommendations * All people up to their 25th birthday should be entitled to publicly-funded education and training up to and including level 3
Existing funding systems are "inconsistent and incoherent". High levels of output-related funding - such as the 30 per cent of the income passed on to training providers by training and enterprise councils - has put considerable strain on the NVQ system and quality of training. "This is partly because of the incentive it creates to abuse the assessment system and the consequent countervailing measures to avoid that abuse, which add greatly to the burden of bureaucracy," the report says.
Recommendations * Common tariff system with "comparable levels of funding for comparable qualifications" should be introduced.
* Output-related funding should be reduced to the level that applies for Further Education Funding Council provision, of about 5 per cent.
* A single budget should be established for all post-16 education and training outside higher education, which is completely responsive to student demand.
Foundation and Modern Apprenticeships should offer the opportunity to progress in general education as well as in the job. Research into drop-outs from Higher National Diploma courses has emphasised the importance of being able to write fluently and deal with more advanced mathematical concepts. A key missing element on the "ladder of progression" is a unified level 4 qualification which would raise the profile of HND-type courses.
Recommendations * Maths and English should be in Modern Apprenticeships.
* GNVQ students should be encouraged use their qualifications as stepping stones to more work-related learning.
* Two-year "associate degrees" in vocational subjects to enable students to move from level 3 to level 4.
The six key skills - communication, application of number, ICT, problem-solving, working with others and improving own learning and performance - are vital to employability.
Recommendations * Clarify national curriculum requirements on skills.
* Help people to see the value of key skills and integrate them into University for Industry courses, teacher training and education-business links
KNOW YOUR LEVELS
* level 2: grade A-C gcse * level 3: A-level or advancedGNVQ * level 4 - degree-level courses