Doing what works, by Nick Cuff

24 May 07
Vocational training for school children should be delivered in partnership with local businesses, which are then exempted from their rates. This would boost youngsters' skills and also benefit small firms

25 May 2007

Vocational training for school children should be delivered in partnership with local businesses, which are then exempted from their rates. This would boost youngsters' skills and also benefit small firms

The failure to make vocational education a credible alternative for Key Stage Four students has been one of the greatest public policy failures of successive governments.

Research by the Bow Group has revealed shocking levels of disengagement in the system. Last year alone, one in ten pupils – 75,000 – failed to obtain five GCSEs of any grade, a figure that has remained the same since 1999. Of these, 26,000 pupils fail to achieve a single GCSE.

And while the government proudly trumpets increases in the number of pupils gaining five good GCSEs, almost half of the total sitting GCSEs — some 334,600 — did not reach the acceptable level of functional English and maths to prepare them for the workplace.

This waste of young talent is breathtaking. Any system that fails so many should be labelled 'not fit for purpose'. One factor behind this is the inflexibility built into the current curriculum. This is reflected in a failure to provide diverse and credible vocational opportunities for students who are not interested in academia. We have had NVQs, BTecs, OCRs – all have failed to become an established route.

The solution lies in courses that are constructed and delivered in collaboration with businesses to give a real flavour of the practical. However, getting firms to participate will take more than woolly PR and generous endorsements.

A poll commissioned by the City & Guilds revealed that 71% of businesses wanted more government assistance to support apprenticeship schemes; and almost two-thirds suggested tax breaks. Businesses, especially small ones, are simply too busy to give up their valuable time.

A key proposal by the Bow Group is the creation of enterprise portals up and down the country. Each would be administered by the local authority's children services and economic development departments and would be a way for local public services to engage with small businesses.

The objective would be to build a network of local small businesses that could assist with training for students. Participating businesses would be exempt from business rates. As these are collected locally, it allows tax incentivisation to be administered by local authorities.

Exemptions from rates can offer a real incentive: they are the third largest item of expenditure for many businesses and the burden falls heavily on the smallest firms. According to the Office for National Statistics' Annual Business Survey 2004, they pay 6.3% of their gross value added output in business rates as opposed to only 0.3% in the largest.

Exempting small businesses could therefore be a powerful incentive to provide training while promoting a small-business friendly policy.

The costs of enterprise portals could be met out of the Learning and Skills Council budget. The LSC's main aim is to improve the skills of England's young people, yet it has proved to be ineffective and wasteful. From a budget of £10.4bn in 2006, only £8.6bn 'will go directly into what happens in the class room and training room'. A staggering £1.8bn is spent on staff costs, which have risen by 26% between 2001/02 and 2006. More than 4,400 people are employed who have no direct contact with training youngsters.

Given that enterprise portals would take on much of the LSC's current role, its sizeable budget would be better spent funding the revenue loss from rate exemptions. Enterprise portals offer an opportunity to localise skills training and build practical provision that reflects an area's local economy.

Each portal should have discretion on what expertise to pool. Likely avenues for partnership could include work placements, peer review of existing educational content and educating students on aspects of a specific profession.

The portals could be used to encourage local teaching staff to shadow one of the scheme's business partners. In France, teachers play a key role identifying career routes. They are encouraged to work closely with companies, and there is a voluntary scheme whereby they can spend up to three weeks at various companies. The aim is for them to learn more about different careers so they can add real insight when guiding their pupils.

Since the majority of vocational courses are designed to gear people for some form of skilled trade, it logically follows that course content and structure should be tied closely to whichever vocation they seek participating students to follow.

The challenge for policy makers is to establish alternatives that have an intrinsic value for participating students. With so much wasted potential in the current system, it's time policy makers took vocational education out of the classroom and put it at the heart of the workplace.

Nick Cuff co-authored the latest Bow Group pamphlet, Wasted education, published on May 25. He is a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth


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