By Daniel Hunter

Top-class vocational qualifications should be called A-levels so they have the prestige they need to rescue the UK from its chronic skills shortage, the head of the CBI urge.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, John Cridland, director general of the CBI, said: “Many of our business members still see A-levels as the gold standard of the education system — so if we’re looking to put vocational qualifications on a par with academic, why don’t we call them vocational A-levels too?”

He said he believed there had been a “blind spot” at the Department for Education over vocational qualifications, but that he was “encouraged” by plans announced last month to run a new “tech level” alongside A-levels — offering qualifications in a range of subjects including engineering, IT, accounting and hospitality.

Mr Cridland described the change as “immensely significant”, but stressed that reforms needed to go even further. “If we come from a professional background and we want to encourage our children to do technical and vocational qualifications, we’ve got to be convinced they are sufficiently rigorous,” he said.

“If we are raising the education leaving age to 18, we need to offer our young people a range of academic and vocational A-levels.”

Mr Cridland said he was “hugely impressed” by the new university technical colleges for 14- to 18-year-olds championed by the former Education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker — but pointed out only five were currently open while they were 29 in the pipeline and a further 20 planned. “We have 3,000 secondary schools,” he said. “We need more.

“In Solihull [which has a UTC] they were writing to parents of kids when they were 13, saying, ‘We have this option available for 14-year-olds — why not consider it?’”

Since he became director general of the CBI, the organisation has won plaudits from many education professionals for its criticism of the “exam factory” and target-driven approach to education that has seen schools concentrating on borderline C/D grade pupils at GCSE in order to get a good showing in exam league tables. “I want to see young people getting a more rounded and grounded education,” he said.

He would like Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief schools inspector, to insist that the education standards watchdog Ofsted take note of schools’ achievement in broadening pupils’ horizons — through such things as trips abroad — or recognising a pupil who had won a gold medal in a maths Olympiad or had got a bit part in the West End musical Chicago — alongside exam results.

“The trouble is, if the school hasn’t reached its targets, the governing body is likely to say: ‘Cut the trips out, we’ve got to concentrate on the results’.” The consequence would be, in Mr Cridland’s view, pupils not having the all-round skills they need when approaching the world of work.

Mr Cridland said that many people had greeted its report last year cautioning against schools being run as “exam factories” by saying, “Thank God for the CBI and what it is saying”.

“We said the best teachers are the teachers who are rebels in the system. We want to liberate all teachers so they have more freedom to teach.”

He said he believed Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had moved a long way towards the CBI’s vision for education in the past year, by reviewing performance league tables to move away from the concentration on five A* to C grade passes, slimming down the national curriculum, giving teachers more freedom and putting forward the proposal for tech levels.

“I am all for the reforms to GCSEs and A-levels to give them more rigour: end-of-learning exams, less coursework and fewer re-sits,” he said. “They [the Government] have also recognised the poverty of league tables. But more needs to be done, and every year I am conscious of the fact that another 30 per cent of young people leave, in effect, failed by the system.”

He was critical of the decision by the Coalition Government to remove the requirement to offer pupils work experience, describing it as “a mistake as big as [the one] made under Labour to remove foreign languages from the compulsory curriculum [for 14 to 16-year-olds]”.

“I’ve seen a significant tailing off in work experience. We’ve repeated the mistake we made with modern foreign languages — now there is a great temptation not to do it,” he said. It was, however, essential in giving pupils a glimpse of the world of work.

Headteachers 'should work in industry’

John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, believes that headteachers should spend a year in industry to broaden their horizons before they run a school.

“I think it would be good for them to have an out-of-the-box experience,” he said. “After all, if you’re going to get to the top of a company, the company will encourage you somewhere along the way to have an out-of-the-box experience.”

He added: “Most headteachers will have been deputy heads and classroom teachers and that’s good. That’s the norm. But I think it’s really important they’ve had at least a year on secondment doing something else.

“It would help them understand the private sector before they end up being responsible for 1,000 kids for the next 20 years.”

This article first appeared in the Independent on Sunday 11th August, 2013.

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