The State of the Nation's Skills: Natalie Brierley Talks to People at Different Levels about the Hopes, Fears, Joys and Frustrations of Vocational Education and Training. (Skills)

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Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council and former chief executive of BP

According to Bryan Sanderson, the devaluing of skills in this country, which poses a huge problem to our productivity, is "a cultural phenomenon, largely linked to academic snobbery". Big business in this country recruits prospective managers from among graduates, and often only from the top 20 universities. It increasingly looks for "soft skills", such as communication, teamwork and an aptitude and willingness to learn on the job. Graduates seem a natural choice, and business needs to be convinced that others who have followed a more work-up-from-the-bottom path could be equally capable. "The biggest problem we face," says Sanderson, "is changing the way people think."

But at the lower, "shop-floor" levels, which make up the biggest percentage of a workforce, businesses are increasingly aware of the need for continual training on the job to decrease staff turnover and increase productivity. "It is also important," argues Sanderson, "that they work on outreach projects, to encourage young people into learning and jobs. Business can play a big role in making vocational skills more attractive."

The government is making an effort in this area, providing the Learning and Skills Council with slightly less than a third of the education budget. The LSC is attempting to increase the profile of vocational skills by promoting modern apprenticeships, creating Centres of Vocational Excellence as a way of attracting students to their courses, and encouraging businesses to connect with further education colleges. "At the moment," explains Sanderson, "there are far more people who have registered for the apprenticeship schemes than there are businesses to support them."

One big problem is how to motivate young people. Uptake may be high but so too are drop-out rates. "Many people don't see education as a step to something better," says Sanderson. "That's why it's so important that businesses connect with learning programmes." Changes are happening, but the difficulty is keeping up with the pace of change and keeping everyone in communication to achieve a common goal.

Ann Hodgson, senior lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Education, London University

Ann Hodgson lectures in adult education and lifelong learning, but her research has focused on curriculum reform for 14- to 19-year-olds. She began in response to concerns over the low status of vocational skills in the UK and the availability of quality educational routes for young people who do not succeed in the traditional academic subjects. "GCSEs, even with their new flexible approach and added vocational subjects, are not working for this group of people," Hodgson argues. Nor, she believes, are the other alternatives that replaced the old GNVQs under the Curriculum 2000 reform.

"The problem is twofold," she continues. "First, lower achievers are still the ones taking the vocational subjects, so they suffer from the same negative stigma; and second, they are designed like academic exams, with too much theory and not enough practical work." The system was meant to result in "parity of esteem" for vocational skills students. But in reality this can be achieved only through easily recognisable qualifications that are respected throughout the industry.

Hodgson's answer, and the culmination of ten years' work, is a British baccalaureate. Under this system, which would incorporate academic and vocational subjects for all students, 14- to 16-year-olds would follow the same core of general education. After 16, specialist paths could be taken. Every subject would have the same worth in terms of final outcome and every student would leave with the same qualification, regardless of specialist subjects. Unlike the French and international baccalaureates, this version would draw heavily on the traditional strengths of British education: innovative teaching and learning, project work, flexibility and choice. …