David Blunkett: Forget the rhetoric and snobbery, we need an education system to bring out the best in our children

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IN responding to the Education Secretary’s cull of vocational qualifications recognised for attainment purposes in English schools, Dr Mike Short, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), said the Government would “fail many of our young people if it does not provide a high-quality alternative to traditional academic routes”.

A day previously, I had met the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University and his team leading yet another impressive further development, building on the advanced manufacturing research centre and the industrial park on the Sheffield-Rotherham border. They were rightly looking to the future. To the imminent success of the University of Sheffield in overtaking Cambridge in investment in engineering research and the rediscovery of the entrepreneurial and enterprising zeal of the city I love, which was built on skill in metals and engineering.

That is why in my own response as a former Education and Employment Secretary I counselled caution in terms of the spin being placed by the coalition Government on the issues around recognition of, and weight given to, vocational qualifications.

Let me be clear. What we need is common sense. It is clear that it would be wrong for a single qualification, no matter how broad, to simply encompass the equivalent of four GCSEs. That erosion of proper comparators needed to be halted.

However, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater makes no sense. Yes, there may be some schools (further education is more likely to provide them) who offer as an addition to academic qualifications (not in substitution for), horse care and fish husbandry.

Much to my amazement, and I had to admit that I got this wrong, it does turn out that some 14-16 year olds are studying these qualifications.

Universally, however, the parents who emailed the BBC were supportive of their youngsters being involved in such vocational work, often citing the fact that this was a complement to high academic achievement or a motivator in some cases to stay in education and to re-engage with crucial literacy and numeracy skills.

And there is the rub. We have on the one hand to ensure that there is a proper mix between academic and vocational, as there is in so many other successful economies, and at the same time motivate those who would otherwise simply give up on the education system and drift into the no-man’s land of permanent unemployment and sloth. I certainly found when I was Education Secretary that there was an enthusiasm from employers for the idea of linking school with work, with further education and with a renewed interest in basic skills driven by the motivation which came from the vocational offer that the youngsters could enthuse about.

Let me declare an interest. At the age of 16, I had no qualifications. I started to go to evening class while taking a commercial (that is vocational) course, including RSA exams during the daytime. Gradually I built up what, in those days, were O-levels.

At work I was given a day a week to attend college, something I think we should consider reintroducing on a grand scale. I took the National Certificate in Business Studies, but in the evening I went in my own time to take A-levels.

That is what got me into university and afterwards into another vocational qualification – a post graduate teaching certificate to become a tutor in further education.

One of my older sons used the vocational route, the GNVQ, and a BTEC National Diploma, entered Liverpool University and later took an MSC at the University of the West of England.

A second of my sons is a computer scientist and the third took a motor vehicle engineering degree. As a consequence, vocational education and the commitment to the skills base of our country are hard-wired into my family.

That is why I believe we simply need a balanced approach. None of the rhetoric that puts people off the idea of vocational education. None of the snobbery that sees academic as the only route to success for the individual or our nation.

We need a reinvestment in careers education. We need to inspire young people to expect the best from themselves and to aspire to goals way beyond the experience of their parents and grandparents. Good advice and inspirational teaching will be crucial to getting the mix right between academic and vocational, and between their experiences in school and their prospects post-16 and for the world of work.

Above all, a commitment to rigour, to transparency and yes, to lifelong learning. For we should be encouraging everyone to take a step- by-step approach which for some will be renewing their education and moving to new profession and opportunities. For others, it will mean engaging with education for the first time.

That is what apprenticeships for young and older workers is all about. In fact the Government’s commendable commitment to apprenticeships in their new guise is benefiting adults more than it is the 18-21 year olds for whom they were mainly intended.

But here is a thought. A lesson to be learnt from my own time as Education Secretary. I was responsible for the massive expansion of National Vocational Qualifications as in work development. Just as now we hit a problem.

Too often, what was happening was simply the accreditation of what was already in place. It is happening now with apprenticeships in some of the more popular areas of Service Delivery.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with widening the skills based by accrediting those who have gained skills already. But it does not add value.

So instead of the knockabout of trying to pretend that a terrible courge is being swept away, we need a unified approach to providing for generations to come, the wherewithal to be able to develop the ability to earn a living and grow a family, and of course at the same time to fill our skills gap, to enable a new generation to rejoice in the foundation of industry and commerce which so much of Yorkshire was built on, and by so doing make our nation both competitive and once again optimistic about the economic and financial well-being of our people.