The man in charge of dismantling Britain's age-old snobbery to vocational work yesterday said he had seen a vision of the future in Birmingham.
Skills Minister Phil Hope spoke after opening an £18.5 million construction training centre, billed as the largest in Europe, at South Birmingham College in Bordesley Green. He also visited the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, the city's worldrenowned vocational centre of excellence on Summer Row.
Mr Hope said the high quality teaching and facilities on offer at both was vital to shifting the perception of vocational training as "second best". "South Birmingham College's Centre for the Build Environment is hugely impressive," he said. "It is a construction centre doing things like brick-laying and carpentry. The quality of that new building says it all. It motivates the students because they are being valued."
The Minister praised " excellent leadership" at the College of Food where he visited refurbished kitchens offering facilities better than many restaurants.
"If you put people in a vocational environment where they are learning with the very best of equipment then you get the best results," he said.
The Government wants to see vocational teaching increased in schools. The move is in response to criticism by employers youngsters are leaving school without the skills they need. "I have a bee in my bonnet about this," said Mr Hope. "We have to break down this ridiculous academic and vocational divide in our education system. If we don't do this we will not have a successful economy. Look at the way China and India are going and look at the productivity gap between us and and America and France.
"We have to invest in skills if we are to have a successful, dynamic economy in the future. So we have to change the culture in which vocational is seen as second best. That is the key to unlocking people's potential."
The Government has set out a vision in which secondary school pupils are increasingly taught vocational subjects in colleges. Work is currently being carried out to create 25 new "specialist diplomas" linked to key sectors of the economy. The business world and employers have been asked to help ensure the new qualifications have credibility.
Mr Hope said: "That is critical so employers can see for themselves the quality of the training provided.
"We are working with employers now. Employers in the sectors are coming together and we are asking them to tell us what skills they need. Where is the gap and how can we fill that gap? The link with employers will mean youngsters know what they are being taught and the skills they are getting are right."
The idea for creating specialist diplomas comes from the investigation into reforming the 14 to 19 curriculum led by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson.
The first are expected to be offered from September 2008.
Mr Hill claimed creating high quality vocational options was key to tackling Britain's enmity to people who "roll up their sleeves".
"I want all young people to see the vocational option as being something for them rather than saying 'I will go the academic route and if I can't do it, I will go the vocational," he added. "The new qualification is a critical part of breaking down that divide."