From education to employment

Gove should go further than simply reviewing exams for 16 year-olds

With only a month to go until GCSE and A Level results hit the headlines once more, there has been much debate surrounding the topic of academic qualifications and their value. Michael Gove has announced his plans to introduce tougher exams for 16 year olds, and the possibility of more “straightforward” exams for less academic pupils, causing great discussion over whether this is the way forward for the country’s education system or not.

The future of GCSEs is a contentious issue and a debate we welcome.  However, we believe it should go further than simply reviewing exams for 16 year-olds. Given that all young people will soon be legally required to stay in education or training until they are 18, do we really need what is effectively a school leaving certificate at 16?

It’s also essential to remember that the academic route is not the only path to success, and that we should always consider the many other options available.  Technical, practical and vocational training is vital to deliver the skilled workforce we need for the future and is just as important for young people. Learning comes to life when it’s put into context – for example, finding out how English, maths and science are used in the workplace. Practical projects and high quality work placements help young people develop skills for life, learn about the world of work and choose courses and careers.

Last year, Professor Alison Wolf recommended that work-related learning (WRL) should no longer be a statutory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum and as a result of this, in October, the Government formally consulted on the question, “Do you think that work-related learning should be removed as a statutory duty?”

Work-related learning includes work experience, mock interviews, enterprise competitions and talks by employers. It’s an excellent way for employers to work with schools and to help young people understand the world of work before making career and learning choices at 16.

The DfE has just published the outcome of the consultation. There was overwhelming opposition to the proposal: 89% said the government should not remove WRL from the statutory curriculum, 9% said they should, and 2% were not sure. The Edge Foundation was one of 506 respondents who said the statutory requirement should be retained.

Regrettably, the Government has nevertheless decided to proceed as planned. From 1 September 2012, schools will therefore no longer be required to provide every young person with WRL.

In future, schools will be free to decide whether to offer any WRL at all, and if so, whether to target it at specific groups of young people.

Edge believes that every young person should be entitled to work-related learning in Key Stage 4, so this is a very disappointing outcome.  We need to ensure that “learning by doing” is valued equally with academic learning, and that all young people develop skills such as teamwork and problem solving.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. The Government has invested a record amount into apprenticeships and improving the technical and vocational training opportunities for young people. The rapid expansion of University Technical Colleges along with last week’s announcement of 15 new Studio Schools are also positive steps towards providing the technical and practical skills that employers demand and our ailing economy needs.

Jan Hodges is chief executive of Edge, the independent education foundation dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning

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