From education to employment

Fortune follows the brave?

There are some people whose jobs I don’t really envy – and at the moment Alison Wolf’s task to review vocational education from 14-19 is undoubtedly one of them. The history of FE is littered with attempts at making the school curriculum more practically oriented and more relevant – who can forget the Technical and Vocational Initiative (TVEI) or the Certificate in Pre Vocational Education (CPVE) or even the Certificate of Extended Education (CEE) for those over 16 ? – all of which had two things in common. They were short-lived and in reality something of a failure.

The problem of course as with so many educational reforms is that they are, more often than not, “bolt- ons” to what is considered to be an otherwise successful system. The reality is that our existing “academic” school curriculum is becoming more and more divorced from the interests and needs of young people in the 21st century. Perhaps now is the time for something more revolutionary than evolutionary – starting with a recognition that a suitable preparation for life and work is more important than an adherence to what has gone before and that modifying what we presently have rather than taking a different approach just isn’t going to work.

I’m not sure if anyone has asked a cross section of 14 year olds recently, for example, what they feel they should be studying in their final years of publicly funded education but I would be very surprised if History, or French or Geography would be on the list of the majority. My experience as a college principal interviewing potential college students identified very few who felt that the bulk of what they were studying at school would be of much use to them in their future lives. For far too many, so much of the school curriculum delivered between 14 and 16 was seen as being quite simply a “waste of time”.

For many in their early teenage years their primary educational goal was to embark on a programme that would help them get a job. What is more for many they had ‘outgrown’ school and most of what it had to offer. They considered themselves as young adults and wanted to be treated as such. They needed something different and something that they could see as being relevant to their “real world”.

Fortunately, if you accept that these are serious issues, there are ways that they can be addressed, without additional expense, within our existing educational system. Schools unfortunately do not hold the answer. On the whole their staff are not vocationally qualified and facility wise they are a long way off offering realistic working environments. The solution for change, which is both realistic and achievable, lies in building on the existing vocational expertise within our colleges and in allowing them to take on the full responsibility for 14 year olds who wish to study a vocational subject with them. The core subjects of English, Maths and IT would remain as compulsory elements in every course of study, though hopefully delivered in an integrated and subject related way.

This would of course mean a transfer of some resources from the school to the college sector(not popular) and a change to the law but neither of these are particularly difficult problems to resolve if the will is there The prize is likely to be far less drop-outs or disengaged youngsters at 14 and 15 and fewer NEETS thereafter. Colleges have come a long way over the past ten years, with increasing success rates and closer and closer links with employers and the world of industry. Give them the freedom to do more and I’m sure they would respond to the benefit of all.

For me, completing the vocational skills revolution would be the introduction of two year full-time (or the equivalent part-time) degrees at the top of the colleges’ pyramid of qualifications. This could be coupled with giving them a role (in conjunction with sector skills councils or their equivalent) in awarding “licences to practice” for those who are not only appropriately qualified but have served an appropriate apprenticeship and/or can demonstrate a period of successful work experience.

So putting it all together, what would we have? An integrated vocational skills curriculum built around existing expertise and facilities in the college sector. In essence

  1. Colleges would be able to offer a full range of vocational qualifications from pre level 1 to level 5 (degree level)
  2. They would be able to admit suitable students for full time vocational study from age 14
  3. English, Maths and Information Technology would be core subjects studied through to 19
  4. In addition, colleges would be able to offer two year full time Bachelor of Vocational Studies degrees, that would be modular in form and also available in a part-time mode. These new two year vocational degrees would be suitable for those completing advanced level apprenticeships and others on a part-time basis. For full –time students there would be a compulsory relevant work experience period of 3 months between years one and two.
  5. Those holding the Bachelor of Vocational Studies degrees would be allowed to apply for a licence to practice after demonstrating a successful period of working with their skills. On- going evidence of further study would be required to maintain the licence, together with evidence of professionalism (Every five years?)

These changes would enable vocational learning at all levels to be available locally and “lifelong” skills updating to be provided “on the doorstep” . It would be a brave report that went so far and history tells us that brave reports (e.g. Tomlinson) are not always welcomed by the government, even if they receive the support of pretty well everyone else. But the successful development of vocational skills in this country is essential to both our young people and the future of the economy. I don’t envy Professor Wolf her task, but I do wish her well in working through what could be the most important change to our educational system in decades.

David Collins is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)


Read other FE News articles by David Collins:

Supporting Higher Education and the Universities are not the same thing 

Calling time on OFSTED?

Course labelling – a nightmare in the making

Related Articles