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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
New certificate for school leavers
Teenagers in England could get a new, US-style school graduation certificate recording all their achievements - possibly including compulsory unpaid community work.
The proposal is part of the latest big idea from the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, aimed at tackling what she calls "a culture of leaving education at 16".
About 7% of teenagers are not in employment, education or training after the age of 16, when they are no longer obliged to be in full-time education.
And Ms Morris is determined to reform 14-19 education into "a coherent, seamless phase in a young person's education" in a way that engages everyone, encompassing vocational as well as more academic learning.
She outlined her ideas in a speech to the annual conference of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in London.
The suggested new, over-arching award would be presented to students upon completion of a combination of existing academic and vocational study routes, perhaps at American-style graduation ceremonies.
For the first time, it could recognise a range of activities that fall outside the formal classroom environment.
"It could also include a requirement to make a contribution to the community through voluntary work," she said.
GCSE exams would stay as a half-way "progress check" for all, and there will be new vocational GCSEs from next year as well as NVQs and modern apprenticeships. A-levels would also count towards the new award.
Mindful of complaints about "exam overload" caused by the introduction of AS-levels and Key Skills tests - which she has asked the QCA to investigate - Ms Morris was keen to stress that there would be no new exams or tests.
"Currently, there is not enough recognition of the vocational qualifications that young people are taking.
"The fact is a lot of youngsters are not yet valued for non-academic work which they find stimulating and valuable. Too many young people are turned off education because of the low-esteem attached to non-academic routes.
"We want to signal clearly that whatever path of study young people choose to follow - academic, vocational or a more mixed programme - that they can see clearly where their efforts will lead and how their achievements will be recognised."
But the general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, Nigel de Gruchy, said Ms Morris's speech combined the best and the worst in the government's education policy.
"Her proposals to free up the national curriculum to allow greater flexibility post-14, and in particular, to facilitate more vocational education, is absolutely right and long overdue."
But a new certificate would simply add to the burdens on overstretched staff.
"The idea of introducing another certificate, a kind of American-style school-leaving graduation ceremony attached to a certificate, in my view at this stage is mind-boggling in its stupidity," he said.
David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers said the speech was a step in the right direction because raising the esteem of vocational qualifications was "absolutely paramount".
"An over-arching award could move this country towards a Baccalaureate approach but the government needs to be even more radical," he said.
"Sooner rather than later the GCSE will have to go and then we really will have achieved a genuine 14-19 curriculum which offers all our students the broad and balanced experience enjoyed by their fellow students overseas."
The leader of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said it was a welcome first step in creating a more coherent structure of academic and vocational qualifications, for which his union had been campaigning for many years.
He added: "If the graduation certificate is to be successful, its value will have to be greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Only then will employers and universities require applicants to have it."
The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis, accused the secretary of state of "froth without substance".
"Nobody would disagree with the idea of graduation awards, but typical New Labour spin simply hides the desperate need to reform the curriculum and assessment in the 14-19 age group," he said.
"Americanised high school graduation, presumably accompanied by cheerleaders, will be utterly meaningless to 16-year-olds who have dropped out of the education system and 17-year-olds bogged down with AS-levels."
And the shadow education secretary, Theresa May, called it a "headline-grabbing and meaningless measure".
As well as the new vocational GCSEs, other changes already announced include £38m for 40,000 work-related placements for 14-16 year-olds which will run from 2002 and the setting up of the Learning and Skills Council which, for the first time, brings all post-16 learning under a single body.
Over three years, £180m is to be spent to strengthen and expand work-based training through upgraded modern apprenticeships. A review of these is ongoing.
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