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Wake-up call

At 8am last Monday, Nick Tate, chief executive of the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was looking (given the early hour) remarkably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. As he presided over a breakfast meeting which was designed to elicit the views of more than 50 educators and industrialists on the infant authority's aims and values, he seemed quite unfazed by the scale of the task he has taken on.

Apart from promoting "quality and coherence" and advising the Secretary of State on all aspects of the national curriculum, assessment and examinations (including research), the QCA is charged with auditing the quality of assessments and developing and publishing criteria for the accreditation of vocational and academic qualifications.

The new body probably represents the most thorough-going attempt so far to bridge the academic-vocational divide which still dogs British education and training.

Most countries, of course, have something of the sort: academic certificates often carry more status than vocational qualifications. But in Britain the strength of the class system makes this division particularly hard to overcome. Since the importance of practical and technical trades has never been genuinely accepted, vocational education similarly has never had parity of esteem (a phrase which was much in evidence over the bacon and scrambled egg). Middle-class professions such as medicine, law and architecture are remarkably unwilling to agreed that their own qualifications - like plumbing and nursing - are vocational and competence-based.

Also significant is that other countries tend to call those aspects of learning which are unrelated to occupation "general" education. Only in Britain do we stick to "academic" - with all those clever and exclusive university resonances.

Ultimately, a key aim of the QCA is to oversee the development of an over-arching qualification which combines both forms of education, and will take young people either from school to work-based training, or into higher education.

Indeed, it looks likely that, as staying in education after the age of 16 increasingly becomes the norm, GCSE will outlive its usefulness. The new challenge will be to design a flexible but demanding curriculum incorporating various combinations of general and vocational education, to be followed by everyone between the ages of 14 and 18 without the current watershed at 16-plus. But no one is saying this out loud just yet.

For the moment the buzzword - as elsewhere in policy-making circles - is "partnership". This partnership must be between the world of business and industry, andeducation.

But "partnership" is a term which needs to be unpacked; the genuine article does not simply happen, but needs to be worked at. Probably the best definition is that coined by Gillian Pugh when she was at the National Children's Bureau. Partnership, she said, is "a working relationship that is characterised by a shared sense of purpose, mutual respect, and willingness to negotiate. This implies a sharing of information, responsibility, skills, decision-making and accountability."

This sense of equality and mutual respect is crucial, and in spite of Britain's strong tradition of school and business links (90 per cent of secondary schools are now linked to a local company, as are 60 per cent of primaries), there is still a long way to go. Both educators and industrialists, in spite of a great deal of good will, are uncertain as to how they can best work together on the broader stage. One industrialist at the QCA's policy-making breakfast called for the new authority to reach out to industry and tell them what was wanted; then, he was sure, there would be a positive response.

It is hard to escape the sense that there is still some mutual suspicion. The industrialists are moving away from the picture of themselves as no-nonsense men of action compared to the misguided idealists of the classroom; similarly, teachers are less likely these days to see the world of work as run by materialistic widget-makers demanding passive factory fodder from the education system. But such stereotypes persist here and there, and neither side yet seems fully to recognise that together they represent two equally important facets of civilisation - and that they are dependent on each other.

That shared sense of purpose and genuine recognition of what the other party has to offer will take time to grow. The way to do it is to work together. Now at least we have the beginnings of a structure within which it can happen.

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