A path through the jungle?

Apprentice and trainer Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The range of vocational and technical training options can be bewildering

Next month in school halls across England, teenagers will gather to get their GCSE results.

It's a day of elation and disappointment, but also a time to make decisions.

Just over half of pupils got five good GCSEs last summer - that means grades A to C including Maths and English.

That leaves four out of 10 children, more in some parts of the country, for whom an academic option is almost immediately closed.

They face a bewildering jungle of vocational and technical alternatives, some of which risk leaving them with poor skills and a life-long disadvantage.

Today's review by Lord Sainsbury is a serious attempt to make it easier to choose a route that leads to a job and to meet the skill shortages which many employers fear are holding back our economy.

More than half of all young people in the UK find their way into work without going to university.

A House of Lords committee described this majority earlier this year as too often "overlooked and left behind".

With the economy facing the challenges of post-referendum uncertainty, and some of the deep divisions in society exposed, a new skills plan is badly needed.

The core proposal of 15 routes to an area of skilled employment seems fundamentally sensible.

The intention is to create a viable alternative that teenagers can choose at 16 which will allow them to progress towards decently paid work.

And the language is interesting too.

This is a plan for education in "technical skills and knowledge".

It's a determined effort to shift away from describing combining study and hands-on experience as "vocational".

Despite the long tradition of vocational education, it has become tarnished by some low-grade qualifications.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Ideally technical and academic qualifications should have equal status with employers

But it may prove harder to galvanise the cultural change this review strongly suggests is needed.

What is really needed for mainly technical and mainly academic education to have equal status is for more white-collar, middle-class parents to support their children in making this choice.

That is a big ask when the graduate premium in earnings remains, albeit with a large dose of debt attached.

The other key ingredient will be money, at a time when public finances will be challenged.

While school budgets for younger children have been relatively protected, education funding for 16-18 year olds has suffered badly in the years of austerity.

The apprenticeship levy on employers is meant to be introduced in April 2017, but many think it will be delayed.

If the business climate changes further, there may be pressure to water it down in some way.

This isn't the first time an attempt has been made to put technical education on a better footing.

It will take several years and commitment, at a time when the government will be stretched, to live up to the hopes of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for this plan.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, says it is a "promising plan to advance technical education from a last resort to a first choice".

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