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Vocational success is no less a victory for education

Being a rather quaint and old-fashioned kind of school, our Year 9 students have only recently embarked on the process of choosing their key stage 4 options. The trailblazing schools squeeze key stage 3 into two years, so that there's plenty of time to retake GCSE modules at least 90 times before the end of Year 11. But we're country folk. We like a more relaxed pace.

The subject fair that kicks off the choice process is a rite of passage. There is palpable excitement as students and parents visit the stands and talk to those already on the courses about what is involved. Deals are done and chocolate changes hands as staff bribe their way towards viable courses. And what choice this year!

GCSE, vocational courses such as Btec and OCR National, apprenticeships and Diplomas - never have students had such an alluring array of goodies on offer, yet the political arguments over whether they are gems or gewgaws continue to gather pace.

The front page of one of The TES issues last month ran with the explosion in entries for the OCR National ICT course, worth up to four GCSEs. It is the fourth most popular 14-19 course and has seen a 669 per cent rise in entries in the last two years. Can you buy shares in OCR? Do fat-cat bankers drool in envy at such an effortless rise in market share?

Ofsted are hair-shirt puritans in their view of this joyful excess, saying the course "taught pupils what they already knew, neglected essential skills and was causing a sharp decline in ICT post-16". Clearly, many ICT teachers disagree, unless of course they are being bullied by their heads into doing a useless qualification just because it's worth lots of lovely league table points. As if heads would do such a thing.

Oh yes they would, says Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow. In a speech reported in this paper and elsewhere, he accused many state schools of deceiving children by entering them for "worthless" qualifications that mask the failure to teach enough pupils to a good enough standard.

He put the boot into media studies as a soft subject, recommending instead that pupils needed good grades in traditional academic subjects such as maths, sciences and languages to get decent jobs in one of the professions; to offer "the brightest children from the poorest homes" anything less is to deceive them about what is needed for success in the real world.

I have never visited Harrow School, but I know it's in London. I guess it serves some really horrible sink estate, full of kids from dysfunctional families whose only role models are unemployed crackheads. I take my boater off to Mr Lenon for motivating them to master Pythagoras and Plato before Cambridge and Chambers.

We are not stupid. The number of students who progress from our school to Oxbridge and other top universities each year shows that we know what it takes, and we can deliver. We are also well aware that there are iniquities in the weighting of qualifications. To say that an OCR National ICT is the equivalent of four GCSEs in, say, physics, maths, German and Chinese is, indeed, odd.

It is about as odd as equating a grade 8 in flute with the ability to improvise bass guitar in a jazz band. Vocational qualifications are simply measuring different things. However, they do more than that: they engage whole cohorts of students who might otherwise reject school altogether.

A student in an east London school proudly showed me the DVD he was making for his media coursework. He had filmed himself rapping in a nightclub and was editing it using professional-standard software. I have neither those performing nor ICT skills, and I bet he ends up earning more than Mr Lenon's and my salary added together.

I heard a minister say that 10,000 kids disappeared from school between Year 9 and 11. They just stopped coming and no one ever knew where they went. The advent of Connexions' advisors to track these kids and the national focus to reduce numbers not in education, employment or training (Neet) have been crucial in tackling these problems, but so have the growing suite of vocational qualifications.

It is uncomfortable for the Telegraph-reading diehards of Tunbridge Wells to accept that schools can no longer afford to fail children. The introduction of GCSEs was a noble attempt to persuade everyone that to gain a grade F was not a fail but a positive achievement that should be valued. The five A*-C benchmark sledgehammered that green shoot back into the ground. We once again have to subvert a system that builds in certain failure for large cohorts of students after 11 years of compulsory schooling.

Vocational qualifications are about inclusion. Of course all children must have the opportunity and encouragement to take the exams that will give them access to society's plums. Yet a young person is safer and more likely to succeed in school than outside it. If that's what the vocational courses on offer at our subject fair achieve, bring them on.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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