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Time to get technical?

The two largest UK political parties both recently put forward proposals to establish specialist technical schools for students aged 14 and upwards.

The City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development (CSD) welcomes the idea, which has the potential to provide a credible vocational alternative for young people and address the linked challenges of youth unemployment and recovery from recession. We particularly welcome the involvement of both universities and colleges and the commitment to ensure young people attending the schools will not find a university education closed to them should they wish to pursue it.

But reactions from elsewhere have been less friendly. Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union NASUWT, has said the idea risks further segregating vocational and academic learning, and accused it of "failing the test of ensuring parity of esteem" between them.

CSD has always had a strong interest in tackling the "esteem problem", which makes it harder to fill key skills gaps in the economy and arguably leads some to take educational routes that they do not enjoy and are unsuited to. We do not, however, agree with Ms Keates that technical schools necessarily make this problem worse.

There are ready examples of how specialist vocational schools can be successful and respected providers of education to talented young people. In countries like Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the dual system enables young people to follow vocational courses that incorporate strong work-based elements.

Understanding models from abroad can help to ensure the new colleges enhance, rather than diminish, the reputation of vocational education in the UK.

First, quality is paramount, and this can only be delivered if vocational teachers are accorded the same status and reward as colleagues in non- vocational schools. Investments will be needed to ensure the schools are staffed by people with suitable pedagogy training and industry knowledge - and further education colleges must also be better supported in their efforts to professionalise teaching in FE.

Second, whoever is in power after the next general election must realise that quality depends heavily on funding if they are serious about putting vocational education on a better footing.

Third, the employer connection must be central. The German model has worked best where training incorporates substantial periods of training in the workplace. The greater the employer contact with students on vocational courses and the more they are able to input into the content of learners' courses and the skills they emerge with, the more value vocational education will have for the economy as a whole.

Fourth, a concentrated effort to explain the benefits of vocational education to stakeholders - and, above all, to parents - will be needed to ensure the schools get maximum support.

CSD shares NASUWT's desire to see the talented young men and women who complete vocational training in the UK properly recognised. We also believe that, with the right management, support and messaging, technical schools can contribute to this goal.

Chris Sims, Policy and strategy adviser, City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development.

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