The new construction diploma will lead thousands of youngsters to careers in the industry. Now we just need to persuade teachers and employers to support it

In mid-1974, when I was a new MP, I got some wise advice from the late Geoffrey Rippon, then the environment secretary. “Michael,” he said, “here’s a warning: never make a speech on education, except to say

it’s a good thing and we need more of it. If you are any more specific you will upset someone – probably a teacher.” In my 18 years in the Commons, I followed his advice.

Not any more. Now, as the chairman of ConstructionSkills, I have to talk continually about education and the curriculum at schools, further education colleges and universities. As a result, I am glad the government is pressing for the introduction of sector-specific diplomas as part of its shake-up of education for 14 to 19 year olds.

The construction and built environment diploma will be launched in 12 months’ time and is a high priority for both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The diploma is being developed by the sector skills councils for the construction industry and the built environment and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board.

Forty-four consortiums of schools, colleges, training providers and employers have been approved to teach the course when it begins next September. Nearly 4,000 pupils will be involved in the first year, with thousands more expected to follow.

In 2002/3, when I was first shown the draft syllabus for the GCSE in construction and the built environment, I said it would not work. It might have appealed to teachers, some youngsters and a few parents, but not at all to employers. So it was rethought and improved.

The new diploma will require numeracy and literacy, but will also cover a number of important practical issues. These include health and safety, sustainability, work-based practical learning and the impact of the built environment on the community.

Students will also learn about professions such as architecture, civil engineering and building services, the regulatory framework, design processes and the management challenges that construction poses. This will send an excellent message to young people about opportunities in construction and the built environment.

The diploma will be graded in parallel to the general secondary education syllabus. Level one in the diploma will be equivalent to four to five GCSEs at grade D to G, level two will equate to five to six GCSEs at grades A* to C and level three will be equivalent to three A levels.

It may not be easy to persuade headteachers. In a world where league tables rule, schools prefer to concentrate on A levels in academic subjects

This vocational qualification may lead many young people to apprenticeships, construction degrees or to direct entry into the industry.

Of course there are some problems that need attention – two issues in particular.

The first is to persuade headteachers and heads of education departments in schools or colleges to enthuse pupils about these diplomas.

This may not be easy. In a world where league tables rule, schools may prefer to concentrate on A levels in academic subjects and try to “lose” youngsters at age 16 if they do not see them as academic stars. The government and the industry need to sell construction diplomas to the teaching profession.

The second problem is for the industry: getting employers to back the diploma. Several large companies and many small and medium-sized firms are involved with this new qualification and supporting it, but we need a lot more.

Let us encourage employers to join one of the consortiums that will be making the next round of bids or to sign up to one of the existing consortiums to offer work experience, teaching support or site visits to students, so they get a feel for the industry.

This is not an academic exercise. We need to be recruiting new people into our industry and involving them in its up-to-date technologies. There is no shortage of applicants, especially from school leavers wanting to be apprentices. The problem is that many employers will not take them on.

In Scotland, construction firms recruit about seven apprentices for every 100 adult employees. In London and the South-east, where there is so much work, the equivalent figure is about 0.9. That is very depressing.

Please help with and find out more about the diploma by visiting If we, as employers, don’t back it, top clients will start to put training in their contracts as a requirement – some are considering that now.