The chief inspector says schools can't do vocational learning. Phil Revell reports from one that proves him wrong
Name: The Grove, Market Drayton, Shropshire
School type: 11-18 comprehensive
Percentage of pupils getting five A*-C GCSEs. 2003: 38 per cent. 2004: 45 per cent
Percentage of pupils with special needs: 11 per cent
Percentage of pupils eligible for free meals: 9 per cent
Our chief inspector apparently thinks that vocational education can only be delivered in schools specifically set up for the purpose.
David Bell's views ("New schools for skills", TES, January 7) were criticised by heads and college principals alike, who argued that such specialised vocational schools would take secondary education back to the 1950s secondary modern and a two-tier system.
But who knows if his idea will find favour with the Government? As ministers ponder their response to the Tomlinson report on 14-19 education, they may note that most schools' experience is confined to the general national vocational qualification in information technology. Has any school shown they can run a real vocational alternative?
In fact, they have. In the Shropshire town of Market Drayton, the Grove comprehensive has had a vocational curriculum for six years. It's not just GNVQs, but full NVQs. The school also runs myriad smaller courses in animal care, first aid, sport, food hygiene, welding and fabrication.
"My immediate response to David Bell's view is that this is the Office for Standards in Education is doing what it always does. A new idea comes along and schools are found to be unable to do it because they haven't been doing it in the past," says head Richard Arrowsmith.
The changes at the Grove go back to the mid-90s, when teachers and governors realised that the curriculum was unsuitable and inaccessible for many students.
"We appointed Richard to a school which had stood still for far too long," said Barry Pitt, vice chair of Grove's governing body. "We were looking for a person with the vision and management skills to change an outmoded and outdated curriculum. Those changes are well and truly embedded and working well. We are now ahead of the game in lots of different ways, and none more so than in our 14-19 vocational programme."
Simon Stoneley, now the school's director of vocational education, says the starting point was to set up a link with Walford further education college.
Half a dozen Grove students began a land and environment GNVQ at Walford, and the school began offering other GNVQs on a modular basis, with students working towards individual units.
"We developed an individual package for students built around a work placement where they could work towards an NVQ qualification," recalls Mr Stoneley.
One of the first to benefit was Sarah Williams, who completed a horse management NVQ to level 2 while also doing a full programme of GCSEs. Other students have completed intermediate GNVQs in retail and NVQs in customer service and hairdressing.
The Grove example is particularly relevant to the Tomlinson debate about how to improve vocational skills because Market Drayton is a small rural town with no FE college. Grove students on vocational courses have to travel to Walford, Telford and Shrewsbury, a costly two-hour round trip.
Mr Arrowsmith stresses that schools cannot offer vocational programmes on their own; the Grove depends heavily on its partner FE colleges and training providers.
Crucially, vocational course aren't restricted to the less able or the disaffected, which has been too often the case in the past.
"We created an option box at key stage 4 for vocational courses and GCSEs like business studies," says Mr Arrowsmith. "We have never ever even discussed the idea that vocational courses are for a particular type of student. It's always been for the whole ability range. We had a girl doing a full NVQ who achieved 17 GCSEs."
That approach is reflected in the numbers. Out of a Year 11 of 160 students, more than 60 are following a vocational option. These include a motor vehicle course and a small group doing foundation construction.
This success has come at a price. Vocational courses are expensive and the Grove could not have pioneered its wider curriculum without the support of the local learning and skills council.
"These are quite expensive courses for the school to run. We have had two or three years of support from the local LSC, but the costs are coming down," says Mr Arrowsmith.
But he is convinced that the changes have reduced the number of students who "turn off and out" of education between 14 and 18.
"We had one very challenging group and I'm convinced that more of them stayed in education as a result of the vocational work they did here," He believes the move towards more vocational courses in schools will have to be an evolution rather than a revolution.
"Schools are not geared up for vocational work; teachers are not used to creative thinking about key skills teaching and vocational courses. But give teachers half a chance and they will respond enthusiastically."
There are issues to address if other schools are to follow The Grove's lead. Finance comes high on the list.
"How different it could be if training agencies could draw down money for pre-16 students. That would make a huge difference to us," says Arrowsmith.
And it is a real challenge for schools to cope with the complexities of co-ordinating a multitude of options and providers. "The more we expand the more we come into timetabling problems," says Mr Stoneley.