Thursday, October 13, 2005

Alternative high school diploma 'will set a new standard'

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.10.13
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PAGE: A4
BYLINE: Heather Sokoloff
SOURCE: National Post

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Alternative high school diploma 'will set a new standard'

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Ontario teenagers will soon be able to obtain an alternative high school diploma that rewards vocational skills development -- but could exempt them from parts of the regular curriculum.

The new diploma was announced during the throne speech yesterday that was largely a repeat of Liberal promises to reduce class size, hire more teachers and improve student achievement.

"The diploma will set a different standard," the document said. "Not a lower one."

Still, with university administrators recently complaining about the academic preparation of many undergraduates -- students who are supposed to be the most successful products of Ontario's education system -- critics worried the new diploma would further erode academic standards.

"To be a plumber today you have to have a high school diploma," said Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education.

"I totally support skills development, but you still have to have the basics in literacy, numeracy, basic history and geography."

The alternative diploma is linked to a Liberal election promise to force students to stay in school until age 18, up from the current 16, to reverse Ontario's one-third drop-out rate.

But the government has decided teenagers in danger of dropping out are unlikely to change their attitudes by spending more time in the regular classroom, while the opportunities to learn a skill or trade might capture their imagination.

"I think we can all recollect friends of ours for whom the study of Macbeth might have been cruel and unusual punishment, but who possessed tremendous skills in other areas," Premier Dalton McGuinty said.

"Our responsibility as a government is to harness those skills and ensure that young people who decide not to do anything beyond high school ... are employable."

According to Patrice de Broucker, senior policy analyst with Canadian Policy Research Networks, countries such as Norway and Switzerland have successfully lured drop-outs back to class with skills training.

The problem for government to overcome is that many students currently see little value in having only a high school diploma but also are not interested in college or university, so they drop out and take up low-paying jobs.

"It's a vicious circle," Mr. de Broucker said. "They don't see the point in finishing high school and they have no willingness to pursue post-secondary. Any program that extends compulsory education has to take these two aspects into account."

The researcher said schools must also bolster guidance counselling, as students in danger of dropping out often do not get information about post-secondary education from their parents or know how to access it themselves.

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