Despite the annual attention lavished on A-level results, more teenagers than ever are shunning them in favour of practical courses which help prepare them for the world of work. As schools and colleges in the borough get ready to offer the new Diplomas being trumpeted by the government, chief reporter DAN HODGES looks at how post-secondary education in Ealing is changing.
EDUCATION commentators watching the annual clamour over A-level results have been asking a pertinent question this year: With less than half of students nationally now taking the exams, what is all the fuss about?
As the government prepares to launch its new diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds in the new school term, the focus of post-secondary education seems to be shifting away from exambased A-levels and towards more practical alternatives which help prepare young people for employment.
And from September, thousands more students in Ealing will have access to vocational courses through the first five new 14 to 19 Diplomas offered in schools and colleges.
The first subjects offered will be construction and the built environment, engineering, society, health and development, creative and media, and IT.
Five more will follow in 2009, and by 2011, students should by have access to 17 different diploma subjects designed to give them a grounding in different fields of employment.
More than 2,200 pupils took GCSEs in the borough this year and achieved record results according to Ealing Council's provisional figures, which shows the pass rate for five GCSEs at grades A* to C jumped from 62.7 per cent in 2007 to around 67 per cent in 2008.
Those young people are now likely to take up alternatives to A-levels in record numbers.
Across the borough, 699 vocational courses were completed by around one-third of post-16 students this year.
Nationally more than half of post-16 students are turning away from A-levels, and that proportion is closely reflected at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, where around 60 per cent of students enrolled on level three courses - equivalent to A-level - are now signed up for vocational alternatives.
The academic and vocational split varies across the college's different sites in Ealing, Southall, Acton and Hammersmith. Three-quarters of students at the Ealing campus take A-levels, compared with just one-quarter at the Hammersmith campus and one-third at the Southall site. A-levels are not even offered at the Acton campus, where all students take vocational courses.
The college has been working with schools to pave the way for the new qualifications, and will offer diplomas in information technology, creative and media, and construction and the built environment. Three more subjects will follow next year at the college's Southall campus.
Lynne Pearson, director of the college's Hammersmith and West London branch, said: "A-levels are always seen, rightly or wrongly, as the gold standard.
"The media are always there when students are getting their A-level results, and it's the perception of parents that students need to have A-lev
els to get into university. But in the main, students who get really good vocational grades are able to do that.
"Parents have to have a change of view about what they want their sons and daughters to do."
The new diplomas were put together with the help of employers to identify the biggest skills gaps and offer training to help plug these.
One of the more obvious shortages in the local economy is in trained workers for shops and the wider service industry. It is hoped that it will be students completing vocational courses at Ealing and Hammersmith who help fill the thousands of new posts becoming available in the next two months when the vast new White City mall opens its doors, and in the longer term with the planned regeneration of Ealing's commercial areas.
"We look at our local market and look at where skills gaps are, and we develop courses in line with those gaps," said Ms Pearson.
"That's been very much the focus of the new diplomas. It's about identifying the necessary skills that students need to join a particular sector, and I think the diplomas will adequately give the students those skills."
Ealing Council has been working with colleges and schools to set up a dedicated centre in Greenford for the 14 to 19 Diplomas, initially focusing on construction and hairdressing.
Deputy council leader and education spokesman Ian Gibb said: "For a lot of children, their strengths are not acade
mic and they may find it much more rewarding to go down a vocational route which doesn't shut the door on university.
"Parents put a lot of pressure on children in terms of what they should do post-GCSEs and say A-levels are the best thing.
"The 14 to 19 Diplomas are really trying to rebrand the vocational route and place more importance on it."