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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February, 2005, 16:24 GMT
Mixed response to exam proposals
College lecture
Vocational and academic subjects stay separate
Colleges, students, businesses and teaching unions have given a mixed response to the government's planned reforms of England's exams system.

Vocational and academic qualifications will remain separate, instead of becoming part of an overall diploma as had been recommended.

Some fear the "stigma" associated with vocational study will stay.

Others have welcomed elements of the government's plans, such as the greater focus on basic maths and English.

'Academic above vocational'

The government's white paper comes in response to a review of 14-19 education by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector for England.

He had recommended a four-part diploma encompassing academic subjects, vocational training and key skills like literacy, numeracy and IT.

Instead, ministers are to offer three-level vocational diplomas in 14 work-related areas like healthcare and engineering, while GCSEs and A-levels remain separate.

Sir Mike has said his biggest worry is that "vocational" will continue to be seen as "second best".

Association of Colleges chief executive John Brennan said: "The white paper is a wasted opportunity.

"The government has once again underlined its commitment to academic above vocational education.

John Dunford
The Tomlinson diploma, carefully crafted with the support of employers, universities, colleges and schools, has been strangled at birth
John Dunford
Secondary Heads Association

"The 'radical transformation' of vocational education of which the secretary of state talks fails to create a system which values the achievements of all our young people, especially those in the local colleges who cater for two out of three 16 to 19-year-olds in learning."

Colleges are worried about how a proposed expansion of vocational studies is to be funded, when they get relatively less money than schools.

Staff at 42 colleges are intending to strike on Thursday over pay.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the white paper was a "lost opportunity to create the coherent, unified qualifications system that this country needs".

The future

He added: "The Tomlinson diploma, carefully crafted with the support of employers, universities, colleges and schools, has been strangled at birth."

Dr Dunford called for A-levels and GCSEs eventually to be absorbed into a single diploma.

National Association of Head Teachers general secretary David Hart said vocational diplomas would not "of themselves create parity of esteem with more traditional qualifications" unless they became a requirement for working or entering higher education.

England's chief schools inspector, David Bell, said he had wished for a more "root and branch restructure" of 14-19 education.

He added that "the historic divide between academic and vocational courses which has ill-served too many young people in the past".

But Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates exams, called the white paper an "important step towards radical change".

Elements of GCSEs, A-levels and diplomas would be shared, "ensuring that further education, higher education and work-based learning are available to all".

'Mixed bag'

National Union of Students president Kat Fletcher said: "The government has missed a momentous opportunity to address head on the UK's poor staying-on rates and to genuinely improve access to education simply because it is running scared of upsetting the status quo as the general election looms."

Bill Midgley, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "These proposals are a mixed bag for businesses.

"While clearly listening to employers on some key areas, the government has missed an opportunity by failing to propose a single diploma."

The "massive skills shortages" required a more coherent approach.

However, CBI director general Digby Jones said he was happy the government's plans included minimum standards for maths and English for those achieving vocational diplomas.

He added: "I'm delighted that A-levels and GCSEs are here to stay.

"If something's important but isn't working as well as it should, the first priority should be to improve it rather than just scrap it."

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, welcomed the inclusion in the white paper of plans to introduce "more stretching" A-levels for the brightest students.

It has previously complained of being unable to differentiate between those getting top grades.

However, Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "This re-branding does not disguise the fact that the academic/vocational divide has been widened rather than narrowed."

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06 Jul 00 |  Education

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