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Universal student cry is 'Why?'

Genuine incentives are what's needed to promote basic skills, says Jon Hughes

We're all sitting on the bank watching Key Skills drown. Some of us are enjoying the spectacle, while others repeat their warnings - too few swimming lessons, partly inflated armbands, not streamlined enough. Those who launched it are panicking and throw lifebelts that are too small or made of the wrong material. And to avoid getting wet or looking foolish, no one will wade in. But who's that about to strip off? It's the local business manager - saviour of Key Skills.

Employers have wanted better skills in school-leavers since time began. One HMI report said that "some employers express surprise and concern at the inability of young persons to perform simple numerical operations involved in business. Accuracy in the manipulation of figures does not reach the same standard which was reached 20 years ago."

When was this report published? 1876. The subsequent 125 years have revealed waves of employers' disgust; in the eyes of employers, each successive wave has left school with an insufficient grasp of number and communication.

In 1995, Sir Ron Dearing uncovered the misgivings of employers and so revised and expanded Key Skills. Today, their new incarnation is integral to Curriculum 2000. Designed to run alongside modern qualifications or stand alone, each skill is awarded once a portfolio of evidence is compiled and a test is passed. A student leaving post-16 education in 2002 should hold certificates displaying competence in application of number, communication and IT.

But Dearing's skills machine isn't working. Battle-weary tutors mumble incoherently about Herculean portfolio-building, verification nightmares, proxy mayhem, impossible tests and glue in the MIS. Away from the trenches, these issues appear to be simple operational shortcomings. But the real prblem with Key Skills 2000 is the indifference of students, parents and teachers.

A common cry in colleges is "Why are we doing Key Skills?" Many management teams would say: changes in funding policy. But the absence of incentive is generating great apathy among students and parents.

What college management often ignores is that teachers support only qualifications that do their students good; they are more interested in credit-for-effort swaps than financial squeezes. In Key Skills, students' efforts are not credited as such.

Enter the local business manager. The LSC is a funding machine with an extra cog - the local employer, but it will not work unless this cog functions. This gives those in favour of Key Skills a glimmer of hope because employers agree that these qualifications must succeed in one way or another.

It is for the LSC to translate employers' demands for better skills into financial stick-waving at schools and colleges. But employers could also provide the much-needed carrot. By being selective and fine-tuning recruitment procedures to favour the "key-skilled", they would create positive feedback to motivate students, parents and teachers - and save Key Skills.

Employers would need to be satisfied that these qualifications are worth support. There is little doubt that they are. Three Level 3 Key Skills really is a guarantee that the holder is proficient and experienced. It is almost impossible to find teachers confident to teach all three Key Skills, and a Key Skills graduate is probably more business-ready than most graduate teachers.

Our school and college leavers must not only be competent, but competitive. Of EU nationals, only British students may drop maths and their mother tongue at 16. Key Skills may not work very well, but without something like it our youth may become hopelessly uncompetitive.

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