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Tomlinson must deliver on skills

Last week's World Economic Forum league table highlighted the continued skills shortage in the UK workforce. Business has long been lobbying for an education system that creates highly skilled workers and boosts economic performance.

For too long, vocational and work-based learning has been seen as a dumping ground for the disaffected and those with a poor academic record. This has hit the status and take-up of vocational skills in the UK and acted as a significant drag on economic performance and attempts to improve productivity.

Many young people today have found a new motivation to enter vocational education. This is not because non-academic qualifications are "easier", but largely due to changes in learning styles and subjects. Qualifications such as advanced apprenticeships in engineering are demanding and rigorous, reflecting the needs of an increasingly high-tech industry. They are also an alternative route to higher education which is just as valid as academic A-levels. Also these learners can study part-time with the support of their employer, thus avoiding debt.

If the Tomlinson report for 14-to 19-year-olds is to deliver higher skills and economic benefits, government and education must recognise the value of vocational qualifications which should be available to all, not just the disaffected. The best students must be allowed to consider a vocational route without fear of stigma or of compromising plans for university.

In order for this to succeed, all young people need impartial and accurate careers information and advice. Too few teachers have worked in industry and so lack the knowledge of what a challenge this can be. This leads to the brighter pupils pursuing traditional academic routes, and missing out on the alternatives.

Teachers and students will need support to guide students to a broader range of subjects that includes the vocational ones. This may mean that business people, FE and HE will need to come into schools to help deliver particular aspects of a course, or provide technical support. To bring business expertise into school, industry is backing a new "fast track" teaching qualification. This would ensure students are taught by people with up-to-date knowledge.

In many cases, engineers, for example, already have teaching experience, having trained apprentices. If they are in full-time teacher training for long periods, their knowledge becomes dated, and forcing them to do this will also deter those considering a move into teaching.

It may also be appropriate for some students to spend part of their time learning at institutions other than their school.

Industry can provide high-quality work experience and business placements, giving students the chance to develop skills that they will find useful whatever career they choose and teaching them about the behaviour required of them at work.

Such business links can provide role models, people with first-hand experience of a sector. It also encourages links between schools and businesses - such as business people sitting on school and college governing bodies, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Scheme, and the sponsorship of specialist schools in engineering, science, and technology.

Aiding knowledge transfer between business and academia, along with the creation of stronger partnerships will also help to address the UK's long-term failure to translate the strength of its academic science base into effective economic performance.

Beyond the headlines about scrapping A-levels and GCSEs, the Tomlinson reforms need to create a fundamental shift in thinking about education and its relationship to economic performance. They will need to provide young people with the skills, information and enthusiasm to pursue a fulfilling career.

If introduced in a realistic and well-supported manner, with teachers, parents, students, and employers all moving in the same direction, then the reforms promise to make a significant contribution to removing the shackles on the economy imposed by an undereducated workforce.

Dr Ian Peters is the director of external affairs and marketing at the manufacturers' organisation EEF

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