Minding the gap

School-leavers who enter the workplace with inadequate
skills could become a thing of the past, thanks to new Government plans to
improve vocational training among 14 to 19 year olds. John Eccleston reports

Chronic skills shortages have long been a headache for the
UK’s employers but the issue has finally come under serious national scrutiny
with a series of proposals designed to shake up the current education system.

Plans presented by the former chief schools inspector Mike
Tomlinson and his working group are intended to address basic skills problems,
provide employers with skilled recruits and create a system where there is more
clarity surrounding the various levels of achievement.

The report sets out detailed proposals to reform 14 to 19
education and plans to replace existing qualifications with a new diploma,
which could mark the biggest change in the system for 50 years. There
is a major emphasis on preparing pupils for the workplace and the
recommendations suggest increased vocational training with closer links to
employment-based learning and Modern Apprenticeships.

In November 2003, the Government signalled its commitment
to skills and the need to plug the gaps across industry and the UK economy as a
whole. The
Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown both promised to focus on skills
creation and on improving the way the current system links up with businesses
to train youngsters in the sort of skills required in the modern workplace. Tony
Blair said he understood employers’ concerns and announced a basic skills drive
as well as a greater role for the Modern Apprenticeship scheme.

“A country’s success is achieved through the skills and
education of its people. We need and economy based on a high level of skills
and one that will generate prosperity and wealth,” he told business leaders at
the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference.

The working group was established to investigate ways of
improving what is widely seen as an over-burdensome curriculum, a confusing
assessment system and a fragmented framework of vocational qualifications. Its
report proposes a new diploma based around four levels – entry, foundation,
intermediate and standard – to create a framework that ensures all learners are
ready to participate in the workplace and wider community. Tomlinson
said the reforms would offer more high status vocational programmes that
provide recognised routes into Modern Apprenticeships and ultimately
employment.

“The interim report sets out proposals for a new structure
that will move 14 to 19 learning on from a system that works well for some, to
one that will meet the learning needs of all,” he said.

He went on to say that the new structure was designed to
provide pupils with essential skills such as communication and team-working as
well as offering flexible and meaningful employment choices.

Richard Greenhalgh, chairman at one of the country’s
largest firms, Unilever, said the group was right to place huge importance on
relevant workplace skills: “There is still frustration amongst employers about
the skills of those entering the labour market. It is clear more needs to be
done to help young people attain the ‘employability’ they need to be successful
in the workplace,” he explained.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
(CIPD) called the proposals “positive” and said they had the potential to
address the UK’s skills shortages. Victoria Gill, training adviser to the CIPD, said
the idea of including more ‘employability’-related learning was an important
step forward.

“Placing a greater focus on both basic skills and efforts
to stretch more able students will be welcomed by employers who report
increasing skills shortages,” she said.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), responsible for
increasing UK skills, also welcomed the growing prominence of vocational
options at pre-16 level. Although the skills body is unhappy that vocational
training, which it calls the economic backbone of the nation, is often
“regarded as a second-class option”. The LSC is concerned that the future
employment landscape will make the failings of the current system untenable and
that tackling the skills crisis and its £10bn yearly bill should be a top
priority.

The CBI’s director general Digby Jones said employers
would “take some convincing” that the proposed overhaul would reduce basic
literacy and numeracy problems. He explained that an unacceptable number of people
left school without basic skills, adding to the UK’s productivity problems and
creating further talent droughts. According to the CBI half of 16 year olds do not
achieve a grade C or above in maths, while 44 per cent fail to do so in
English.

“The Government must aim to raise standards, not simply
change structures. We agree with the concentration on vocational training but any
reform will be measured by whether it helps those at risk of being left
behind,” said Jones.

Manufacturing organisation the EEF warned against
knee-jerk reactions and said companies needed to see the final report due out
in the Autumn to be able to properly judge the entire package. The
EEF’s head of skills Janet Berkman said the working group should also
concentrate on the quality of informed guidance given to youngsters throughout
the education system.

“However, the new qualifications are designed it is vital
they do not lose the clear credibility which currently exists and which
students and employers clearly understand,” she said.

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