From education to employment

Education fit for the 21st century

Sally Dicketts is chief executive of Active Learning

Today’s young people face a far more challenging future than my generation ever did.

In today’s society there is little job security, increased competition for the jobs that do exist and the prospect of large debts for t­hose that continue their education to university.

As our society has changed, so too have the attitudes and behaviours of our young people.  Many lack the attribute of delayed gratification. It is much rarer for young people to study for the sake of studying. Instead they need to see the purpose of what they do. Having a significant role in the design and delivery of their curriculum is central to sustaining their motivation.

That’s why Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, along with other members of the Gazelle Colleges Group, is actively reshaping its curriculum around the ethos of entrepreneurship. We believe in creating a learning environment that is more commercial, one that puts the onus on students to take control of their learning day-to-day, and equips them with both career-focused skills and an enterprising mindset.

Further education needs to provide a modern, relevant education, and to do that it must understand the young people that it serves. Luckily we now know much more about how to recognise and respond to behaviours and attitudes and also, thanks to neuro-science, how the brain functions and responds to learning.

Our capacity to learn is rarely limited by our brain, but by our emotions. If we have not learned to cope and deal with stressful situations, anything which goes against our natural desires can immediately cause chemicals to be released and fight or flight to ensue. This is something that we see in our young people.

If we accept these factors, and share a desire to enable our students to succeed, why then when I walk around many schools and colleges do I see classrooms reminiscent of those that I sat in during the 1960s and 70s?

What we need instead is to establish a genuine partnership in which the student and their tutor work together to design their learning – including what and how they will learn and how they will be assessed. This needs to be firmly rooted in the career pathway they wish to follow. This puts the onus on the students to define and help create their own learning environment. The programme must also help them understand and develop the emotions they will need to survive in today’s complex and fast-changing world. This means reviewing how they think in the world.

My premise is that the best way to do this is through the setting up of learning companies, a concept we are developing at Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, and a pioneering education model that is central to the ethos and values of the Gazelle Colleges Group.

Through the learning company model, students are employed in real commercial operations that form a significant part of their college experience. This includes business students working in administration and marketing roles, media students completing films for local businesses, motor vehicle students providing MOTs to paying customers and art students developing community art projects.

These social enterprises provide the students with a much clearer sense of why they need to develop certain skills and behaviours and the impact this has on the end user, or customer.

Under this model students will be interviewed not just for a course but for a career pathway by a member of staff who knows what employers are looking for and who is able to develop a full picture of the young person’s emotional, behavioural and intellectual needs.

They will then join a programme comprising a 30 hour week – half of which will be tutor led and assessed. Of the remaining half, five hours a week will be in a learning company, five will be engaging in work experience and five will be dedicated to individual study which they will have to record and be assessed on. This will create the networking and habits in their brain to make them highly competent in their chosen field and more employable.

A six week cycle will see the fifth week dedicated to one to ones and progress reviews and a sixth week devoted to cross-curriculum enterprise activities. These activities will require each student to demonstrate the skills they have developed.

At the end of their programme they can choose to work permanently in the learning company or work with our own employment agency to gain employment or progress into higher education.

The learning company model will be launched at OCVC in September, and has also been developed by other colleges in the Gazelle Colleges Group network.

We believe that it will ensure each young person feels respected, valued and engaged and can master the technical, intellectual thinking and emotional skills they need in a practical, action-based manner.

It will ensure that our young people feel confident and able to tackle the challenges they face with self-awareness, resilience, curiosity and an appreciation of social and cultural nuances.

Throughout they will be involved in agreeing and reviewing their programme as they learn to increase their independence.

This re-thinking of our educational system will help students to see the value of learning and set them up for a brighter future.

Sally Dicketts is principal and chief executive of Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, a member of the Gazelle Colleges Group

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