Society needs workers with a wide range of practical and interpersonal skills. Yet students with such abilities have little opportunity to demonstrate them through the GCSE and A-level system.

Vocational training provides a chance for them to succeed and show what they are good at.

Fee-paying schools say they are good at educating every kind of pupil regardless of ability or proclivity, but only a few offer vocational qualifications. Moreover, the number is shrinking because of excessive bureaucracy and regulation surrounding the new flagship diplomas.

Among those bucking the trend is St Bede’s School in East Sussex, which offers its 900 pupils the chance to study BTecs, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and diplomas in vocational subjects alongside GCSEs and A levels. Such qualifications focus on practical skills with minimal written work.

Subjects available at St Bede’s include culinary skills, horse care and riding, sport, music performance and music technology. Richard Maloney, the school’s headmaster, says the aim is to give all pupils a sense of achievement, enable them to explore their talents, and make them confident, with a sense of their worth.

“If they feel they are not top-of-the-tree academically, they often lack self-esteem, and those pushed into unsuitable disciplines often feel they have failed,” he says.

One former St Bede’s pupil became a trainee chef with Jamie Oliver and another has been recruited to the junior GB show-jumping team for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Last year’s head boy completed the BTec National Certificate in sport and now has a professional contract playing rugby with the Harlequins.

“He’s been able to make the fact that he’s an outstanding sportsman relevant to his working life,” says Dr Maloney. “Vocational qualifications enable students to feel good about themselves and provide a head-start with employers by showing they have a formal qualification in a subject in addition to an interest.”

Jonathan Hughes-D’Aeth, headmaster of Milton Abbey School in Dorset, agrees it is important for pupils with skills that are valuable to employers to have a formal qualification that recognises this.

Traditional academic examinations cannot measure interpersonal skills such as leadership, yet these can be very useful for people working in a wide range of jobs, he says.

“An individual might have a top A in maths, yet not be the kind of person you’d follow through the jungle. These skills can be developed by giving pupils the chance to practise them.” Milton Abbey offers its students BTecs or City and Guilds qualifications in subjects such as sports and exercise management, and countryside and environmental science management.

Also available is hospitality management, for which a typical assignment might be laying on a shoot lunch for 40. This would involve conducting a health and safety risk assessment, budgeting, liaising with the customer, managing the team and arranging the cooking.

Vocational courses are not just for less academically able pupils. One girl at Milton Abbey recently did A-levels in English, French and Religious Education alongside her BTec in hospitality management. She is now reading philosophy at Manchester University.

A fellow pupil studied French, Geography, Business Studies and Hospitality Management, and is now at the Swiss Hotel Management School in Lucerne.

But although a surprising variety of vocational courses was on offer in private schools just a few years ago, their number is declining, says Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference.

A perceived lack of academic rigour has put some schools off, while causing regulators to make vocational qualifications more like conventional exams, removing many of the advantages for less academic pupils.

“GNVQs have become almost clones of academic qualifications, where previously they had been more applied,” says Mr Lucas. Enlisting the support of teachers can also be a problem. Vocational courses require different skills and considerable flexibility from staff who normally teach standard examination subjects.

“You need teachers who are practical and prepared to turn their hand to something different,” says Mr Hughes-D’Aeth.

Milton Abbey uses some of its academic staff in combination with professionals who work at the school such as the catering team, equine manager and sailing instructors.

The other problem is that the new-style diplomas, designed to replace GNVQs, are so complex in design and delivery that there is no way an independent school can provide them, says Mr Lucas.

Participating schools and colleges must collaborate with each other and with employers to provide work experience which is an essential part of diplomas.

Parents paying school fees might object to their sons or daughters spending a large amount of time off-site, which the courses require. And, unlike applied A-levels, some universities have said they may be unwilling to consider diplomas as entry for courses.

Diplomas has also been dogged with bad publicity focused on poor student take-up, disappointing results, and problems with logistics and transport.

Mr Lucas believes this situation will continue, as other types of vocational qualification are phased out in favour of diplomas. Parents seeking a less academic focus for their children will be forced into the state sector.

“Government policy has accentuated the divide between independent and state sectors,” he says.

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