What's wrong with being a mechanic?

It is not just those pupils who are least able or most challenged who are enrolling on vocational courses

Henry Hepburn

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Vocational education has had a remarkable surge in popularity in a local authority where the brightest pupils are encouraged to study car mechanics and hairdressing.

The number of S3-4 pupils taking such courses in North Lanarkshire has more than doubled in two years - and is up to 60 per cent of the S3 cohort in one school. In 2006-07, there were just under 1,000 S3 and S4 pupils taking such courses, but the figure has jumped to 2,050 this year, out of a total 8,104.

The rise has coincided with authority-wide efforts to change perceptions about the sort of person who pursues vocational qualifications, and increasing opportunities to take college-style courses without leaving school premises.

"We don't see vocational education as just for the least able or most challenged," said Stewart Murray, quality improvement officer, during a presentation at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last week.

North Lanarkshire Council is offering more and more vocational courses under the national Skills for Work scheme, which aims to provide generic employability skills rather than merely those required for a specific career.

These broader courses can lead to Intermediate 1 and 2 certificates, which makes it easier to attract academic pupils. Their credibility is further strengthened by the knowledge that success is not guaranteed, with the pass rate at 75 per cent.

The authority has worked with several colleges to make courses available in school. The University of the West of Scotland is also involved, and there is one private sector partner.

Mr Murray believes that the school-based model has several factors in its favour, including better connections with other parts of the curriculum; closer pupil supervision and support; less learning time lost through travel; and the reduced costs of bringing lecturers to a school rather than sending pupils to a college.

There is evidence that attendance, motivation and behaviour have improved as courses have become better suited to pupils' needs. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in its review of Scottish schooling last year, singled out North Lanarkshire's "outstanding" attempts to make vocational courses suitable for all pupils.

There are now 35 types of vocational courses offered by North Lanarkshire schools, including call centre work, hospitality, auto mechanics, childcare, hairdressing, rural skills and music technology. The private sector partner, construction giant Mitie, has linked up with Airdrie's Caldervale High to offer training in workplace skills and, ultimately, the possibility of employment.

All but two of the authority's 24 secondary schools offer vocational courses, as well as six special schools, but the authority believes several challenges remain. It says that many courses are over-subscribed; links to work experience are not yet strong enough; pupils still believe subjects such as hairdressing are for girls only; and there is a reluctance among some pupils to take Skills for Work courses for fear that it will look like a blemish on their exams certificates, since candidates can only pass or fail.

There are also concerns where 60 per cent of S3 is taking a vocational course, about the impact on the popularity of languages courses.

But the learning festival also heard a warning that the success of college-delivered vocational education required adequate support from local authorities.

Lindsay Nicol, who organises Skills for Work courses at Moray College in Elgin, knew of girls turning up for childcare classes who were only "vaguely interested" in the subject and had no idea that they might be asked to do more than play with children.

She said the relationship between further education and schools was "far less harmonious" than in North Lanarkshire, and the local authority was not as proactive. Schools could be "inflexible" and expect colleges to deliver the whole of a 14-hour course "even if pupils have long since disengaged".

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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