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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 12:34 GMT
Tories push for vocational schools
Vocational education would be expanded in secondary schools under a Conservative government, says the Leader of the Opposition, Iain Duncan Smith.
Speaking during a fact-finding visit to schools in the Netherlands, Mr Duncan Smith said that allowing pupils to learn craft skills could help tackle problems afflicting English secondary schools, such as truancy and lack of motivation.
Mr Duncan Smith, accompanied by the Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green, was visiting the Netherlands as part of a series of visits to European countries, as the Conservatives seek fresh ideas to revitalise their education policy.
At the Driestar College in Gouda, the Conservative team saw how vocational education was integrated into the school system.
The secondary school has almost 3,000 students and the Conservative visitors were shown large and well-equipped workshops for crafts such as metalwork, woodwork and electrics.
Mr Green said that we needed to accept that students could begin vocational lessons in the early secondary years, as happens elsewhere in Europe.
"We have a hang-up about saying to a 12-year-old, you don't have an aptitude for academic skills, we should find you something else."
The government, in its plans for 14 to 19 education in England, is already putting a greater emphasis on vocational studies.
It is paring down the number of subjects students must pursue to GCSE level to a core of English, maths and science.
Impressed by the Dutch facilities, Mr Duncan Smith said they seemed to cover a wider range of aspirations.
"In the United Kingdom, we tend to focus on academic subjects, which can mean that some pupils get left behind.
"Schools are not set up to stretch pupils in vocational subjects. And we've seen high levels of truancy and frustration."
Teachers at the school said that allowing pupils to develop craft skills helped to create a better balance, particularly for less academic students.
Jannette Schreuders, an English teacher, said that some more technically-minded students might not want to learn a language, but they accepted it as part of a range of academic and vocational lessons.
But if Mr Duncan Smith was considering innovation for vocational training, he took a more traditional line on the future shape of qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds.
While the government has signalled its interest in an "English baccalaureate", the Conservative leader spoke of protecting the "gold standard" of the A-level.
While his education spokesperson suggested that baccalaureate systems and the A-level could co-exist, Mr Duncan Smith took a less flexible approach, calling for the stabilising of the A-levels before any further changes were considered.
On school funding, Mr Duncan Smith refused to be drawn on whether a Conservative administration would match the current government's level of education spending.
Among the features of the Driestar College that had interested the Conservatives was that almost all pupils left with a qualification.
And that almost no pupils were playing truant or were excluded.
But this was a more complex picture than at first might be apparent.
In terms of exclusions, which might be imposed for drug taking or violence, schools cannot remove a pupil unless they can find an alternative school place, which places a practical brake on exclusions.
And in terms of truancy, a different social attitude seemed to be at play, with teachers emphasising the links with parents and the belief that problems could be resolved.
Teachers seemed taken aback to learn that in England, the police are involved in tackling truancy and that parents of non-attenders can be jailed.
The school is linked to the Dutch Reformed Church and teachers spoke of the importance of belonging to a wider community.
Joop Vermeulen, a head of department, said that the school's name referred to three points on a star, combining "family, church and society".
Almost all pupils leave with a qualification, unlike in England, where about 7% of pupils leave without passing any exams.
But pupils at Driestar College are in four different ability streams, with each studying the same subjects, but at different academic levels.
The exams are also differentiated so the lowest ability group are tested at a level according to their abilities.
Teachers at another Dutch school visited by the Conservatives were dismissive of this exams-for-all approach, describing it as an exercise in tokenism.
Marie-Theresa Reichmann, a teacher at the Rientjes Mavo school in Maarssen, near Utrecht, said that making sure everyone achieved an exam could please parents, but in educational terms it was a "deceit".
"I want to see pupils leaving with a piece of paper that is worth something," she said.
What interested the Conservatives in this school was the way that it had been founded and was now funded.
In the Netherlands, where there is sufficient demand from parents, the government will fund a school.
Rientjes Mavo, set up in the 1950s as a Roman Catholic school, had been created in response to parental demand.
It receives its funding as a lump sum from the government, but it has much independence over how this is spent, with the institution run by a school board and head teacher.
But in practice, teachers say that the independence is qualified, with the education department still sending them many directives.
The Conservatives want to establish a similar right for parents to set up their own schools - and for state schools to be allowed much greater autonomy.
Mr Green says that he wants to end the "top-down" approach, with the government as the "monopoly supplier" in education, where initiatives from Whitehall are imposed on schools.
But he rejects the suggestion that the policy owes more to free-market instincts for deregulation, rather than a practical approach to raising standards.
"It's not ideologically driven, it's about practical experience, allowing schools greater freedom."
And he accepted that such independence would mean less control on how schools operated and that not all parents would be pleased with the outcome.
"I'm sure that under my ideal system there would be schools I wouldn't want to send my children to," he said.
This trip to the Netherlands was conducted in English throughout, with many of the teaching staff as relaxed talking in English as Dutch.
And Mr Duncan Smith, while saying that he had learned German, French, Spanish and Italian, did not propose reversing the plan to make language learning optional after the age of 14.
"The key failure with learning languages isn't when we finish, but when we start," said Mr Green.
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