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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
How to make 'staying on' appeal?
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

engineering workshop
The new Diplomas are supposed to mix theory and practice
Nerves are jangling in the Department for Education and Skills as they await the Blair-Brown handover.

What will be Brown's "big idea" for education?

According to one very senior civil servant I spoke to, everyone in Whitehall knows there will be some big changes.

They just don't know what these will be or when they will happen.

One thing is certain - Prime Minister Brown will want swift delivery of the plans to raise the education leaving age. This will be one of his early priorities.

Yet the policy is already causing considerable scratching of heads as everyone involved with further education puzzles over what they can offer to interest those disenchanted 16 to 18-year-olds who will be forced to stay on in education or training.

At a major FE and Skills conference in London this week there was much concern over what should be offered to these Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

Some might have expected that they would be entered for the new Diplomas, which are due to start in September 2008.

But it is rapidly becoming apparent that the Diplomas will not be suitable for these youngsters.

Practical route

Since ministers are concerned that they should be seen as an alternative route to universities, they will have a high academic content.

Indeed officials get quite shirty if you talk about the new qualifications as "vocational" Diplomas.

They prefer to describe the Diplomas as "academic learning in a vocational context".

If you were being cruel, you might say that this means that a Diploma in construction will mean writing essays about building a wall rather than learning how to lay bricks.

Yet, surely, many of those 16 and 17-year-olds who currently leave education and training altogether will only be persuaded to keep learning if they can see a direct practical application for the courses they will be forced to take?

And that is why we will need a vocational and practical route for them.

Some might say it exists in the form of the Modern Apprenticeships.

Yet experts say these will still be too demanding for 16-year-olds with no qualifications. After all, they are pitched at the educational equivalent of several GCSEs.

Alternative shape

So, it is perhaps not surprising that so many of the least academic youngsters fail to stay on in education after 16 when there are so few courses appropriate to their needs.

Before compulsion backed by the threat of fines comes in to play, perhaps it is time to think harder about what these youngsters should be learning?

And maybe we could look overseas to see how they still do practical vocational education differently, and in a way that encourages virtually all school-leavers to volunteer to continue with education and training.

Take Switzerland, for example. As one recent study pointed out, there are two good reasons for looking to the Swiss experience.

Firstly, two thirds of Swiss youngsters gain vocational qualifications. Secondly, there is virtually no unemployment amongst school-leavers there.

How do they do it? To begin with, when pupils transfer from primary to secondary school, the school and the parents agree on the most appropriate type of secondary education.

Only a small minority start off in the gymnasium (grammar school) where the aim is a purely academic education leading to university.

The rest go to general secondary, technical schools or vocational schools, although there is flexibility for transfer between these school types.

So, importantly, the whole shape of secondary schooling in Switzerland is not predicated - as it is in the UK - on an academic, university-oriented pathway.

In the last year of compulsory schooling, at age 15 or 16, students who are not going to university apply for apprenticeships.

Although there is no compulsion to do so, no Swiss students leaves school without some definite arrangement for either an apprenticeship or further study (the few who fail to get an apprenticeship return to school for another year).

Those young people who enter apprenticeships will also get training at colleges. Indeed they can only get a college place if they have an apprenticeship.


The apprenticeships are popular because they are seen as setting young people on a career for life and because the vocational qualifications they involve are highly esteemed and recognised.

This, sadly, is in sharp contrast to the vast array of vocational qualifications in the UK, which have been estimated to number at least 22,000 different types.

Not surprisingly, British employers regard this as is an impenetrable maze.

Swiss apprenticeships usually involve three or four years of study combined with practical work, although some are much shorter.

The students will spend some time with their employer and some at either a college or an industrial training workshop.

Apprenticeships cover areas such as: metalworking/machine industry, agriculture, building construction, catering, and sales.

The key thing is that they are based on practical activities, they involve learning in the workplace, and they involve being taught by expert mentors.

Of course, all is not perfect in Switzerland. There are some concerns now about the small number of youngsters (about 3,000 out of some 80,000 seeking places last year) who fail to get an apprenticeship.

Nevertheless about 95% of school-leavers go into an apprenticeship.

It would be naive to think the Swiss system could be imported wholesale to the UK, but any system which persuades its less academic youngsters to voluntarily stay in education must have something we could learn from.

Whoever is left in place as minister for FE and skills after the forthcoming reshuffle might do well to start with a summer fact-finding trip to Switzerland.

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