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'Vocational is not a second-class option'

Bernie Smith rails at the idea that some schools are not taking the vocational agenda seriously . His secondary, Four Dwellings high, in Edgbaston, Birmingham, embodies the committed approach to work-orientated learning.

Since 2003, 14 to 18-year-olds from 17 schools across the south-west of the city have been drawn to specialist courses developed by an education action zone led by Four Dwellings and local businesses.

The "Quinzone centre" has four construction workshops, two hairdressing salons and a health and social care "academy".

The teenagers are given access to allotments and a greenhouse for those interested in a career in horticulture. Construction options include brickwork, plumbing, tiling and painting and decoration. There is also a basketball academy. Mr Smith said the facilities had cost up to pound;1 million, with funding from the Learning and Skills Council, Birmingham council and Lovell's, a local building firm, among others.

Four Dwellings serves one of Britain's most deprived areas, with high numbers of pupils with special educational needs. Mr Smith, the school's head, admits that initially the vocational courses attracted more lower-ability pupils. But he added: "Vocational is not a second-class option. It's a first-class option. There are more and more children of higher ability taking an interest in courses that we are doing."

Many of those enrolled on work-related learning - Quinzone currently caters for 530 pupils - went on to get jobs in the relevant field, he said, one becoming a local construction firm's apprentice of the year.

Vocational options were made available to all pupils, he said. The school was planning to provide taster courses in the holidays for those teenagers who currently took only GCSEs, encouraging academic high-achievers to consider vocational courses.

The crucial thing was that, because of the close involvement of business, all teenagers knew that employment could follow if they did well, said Mr Smith.

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