John May is chief executive at the UK Career Academy Foundation
When I went to school things seemed pretty simple. You worked hard, or not, as the case may be. You crammed like crazy for a few weeks before your exams. You ended up with A-levels and, hopefully, the offer of a place at university.
But ask any teenager now about what they are doing and you discover that the world has moved on a bit. Coursework as well as exams. Supplier qualifications. BTecs. A-levels. Applied A-levels.
Yet the complaints from employers and universities remain remarkably constant. Young people are not being prepared for adult life properly. They cannot add up. They can hardly read. They cannot work in teams. They cannot work unsupervised. They have the social skills of a small insect. Their idea of timekeeping leaves everything to be desired.
What is needed, employers say, is a qualification that mixes the vocational with the academic that helps to develop young people's life skills and has enough content to be useful, but recognises that the world is a swiftly changing place and that what might be useful for today's IT student might be as obsolete tomorrow as my old ZX80.
Just over the hill, itching to get into the fray like an impatient Indiana Jones, is the government's controversial specialised diploma.
Designed in close consultation with industry, it will let students leave school with the equivalent of three A-levels, or prepared for employment, if that is what they want.
Its IT manifestation will include rigorous content, relevant to the sector - maths and English instruction as well as employability training. The government promises engagement with employers, with every student having meaningful work experience tied to their coursework.
It could work, if IT directors and HR managers demonstrate a commitment to supporting the next generation of employees by helping local schools and colleges with work placements and mentors.
But there are risks. The government has promised that the "gold standard" of A-levels will remain.
So unless the sector actively champions the new diploma, there is a real chance that it will remain a second-class qualification for "other people's children".
Quality control of employer engagement needs to be top notch, so that work experience means something more than filing and coffee making. And, as the new qualification gets piloted, the educationalists will need to listen carefully to constructive criticism and make appropriate changes to their teaching.
But the prize is there for the taking. The first students to take the new IT diploma start their studies in September 2008.
Schools and colleges will be preparing from this autumn onwards and will be looking for employers to help them. I just hope that IT directors will put their hands up to volunteer - and not retreat to the desks at the back of the class.
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