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FOR MANY observers the Government's preoccupation with rolling out academies and free schools in the educational system is an irrelevance at best and a fad at worse.

The emphasis needs to be refocused on improving and raising the status of vocational and technical education for the 60% of young adults who don't follow the academic GCE A-level path.

With post-16 education now mandatory over 70% of young adults attend further education colleges, or are following apprenticeships with private training providers.

Yet despite higher levels of participation, a report by the regional think tank, Policy North, notes that 45,000 16 to 24-year olds are NEET - 21% of the North East's young adults are neither in education, training or employment - the highest in the UK.

Across Tyne and Wear most youngsters follow high-quality BTEC national diploma programmes in a range of occupational areas including health care, manufacturing, business, IT, uniformed public services and creative arts, while others follow Level 1 or 2 courses of variable quality as noted by the city council report, The NE: Skills For the Future.

Despite progress in educational standards across the North, research done by Estelle Morris, vice chancellor of Sunderland University, shows that the UK remains near the bottom of the international measurement of attainment. The region has a lower proportion of adults with technical skills yet top employers are crying out for qualified 'technicians'.

About half of the adult labour force (16 to 64) lack basic numeracy skills. One in six has the literacy skills of an 11 year old. As Morris notes this is a key factor behind why many end up in low-paid, low-skilled jobs or become part of a 'reserve army of labour' in and out of precarious jobs often on zero-hour contracts.

The Government has built up a 'policy consensus' backed by the CBI and TUC on 'rebuilding a vocational route', boosting apprenticeships giving the 'new vocationalism' an impetus. In 2015, David Cameron signed up to creating three million apprenticeships funded by a PS3bn levy on large-sized employers as an alternative to higher education. Yet some remain sceptical. Patrick Ainley, professor of education and training at Greenwich University, in his book, Betraying a Generation, points out that that the Government's approach amounts to nothing more than a "magic solution... to somehow conjure up a German-style productive industry out of the UK's deregulated economy". Ainley points out that there's a danger that some post-Brexit employers will be allowed not to pay the levy. For Ainley, a number of employers simply don't want apprentices.

A survey carried out by the CIPD illustrates these concerns. One in six employers will cut apprenticeships, while the CBI has called on the Government to delay its introduction until 2018.

Whatever happens, some educationalists believe that the apprenticeship programme could resemble the discredited Youth Training Scheme of the 1980s, which in the main provided little in real training and rarely resulted in a well-paid, meaningful job.

However, the little reported government-funded Sainsbury Review of Technical Education calls for a 'bipartite' approach when it comes to compulsory post-16 education: an academic route for some and a vocational pathway for the majority based on 'parity of esteem'.

One clear danger of this approach is that the old post-1944 'bipartite' system is reintroduced reinforcing class divisions - A-levels for the middle-classes and vocationalism for the 'masses'.

The time is now to give vocational education the status it deserves. A plumber or beauty therapist is just as important as a media studies graduate. Many young adults, especially workingclass white men, don't want to go to university. With the abolition of the maintenance grant fewer will opt for higher education. Even those who are there question whether it's the right decision.

Some continue with their academic studies accruing huge debt and end up in a job in which a degree is not necessary. A minority drop out after the first year. Many would be happier and better off pursuing an apprenticeship with a real job at the end of it.

| Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor.

A plumber or beauty therapist is as important as a media graduate
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 23, 2016
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