From education to employment

Is Alison Wolf blind to the importance of technology and learning?

By Kirstie Donnelly of learndirect and Seb Schmoller of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT)

Professor Alison Wolf has long recognised the enormous importance of work-related and work-based learning but reading the report left us uneasy.

The report of the review by the Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London is nothing if not hard hitting. Wolf stresses the fact that English and Maths GCSE at Grades A*-C are fundamental to young people’s employment and education prospects. She points to the fact that less than half of students make have both at the end of Key Stage 4 (aged 16). Even more striking is the fact that only 4% of the cohort go on to “achieve this key credential during their 16-18 education”.

Sections of the report – notably, What we want to achieve, The wider environment and The way forward – are models of clarity.

So why then does the report leave both of us feeling so uneasy?

The stated scope for the review was “To consider how we can improve vocational education for 14-19 year olds and thereby promote successful progression into the labour market and into higher level education and training routes.”

Wolf’s interesting assessment of the dramatic way the labour market has changed over the last 40-50 years in the UK and elsewhere in the developed world was a necessary backdrop for the review.

But she was strangely silent on the way that the environment for learning has also changed dramatically. She makes no mention of:

  • the much greater amount of reading and writing that young people at the lower end of the attainment scale now do than was the case before mobile phones and texting became ubiquitous;


  • the enormous potential that learning technology provides to engage learners and enrich their learning;


  • the scope to use online learning as a means to make training and education flexibly and efficiently available to young people whether they are learning at home, in the workplace, or in a more formal school, college or learning centre setting.

We think the government and the Wolf Review have missed an opportunity to begin to “flip” the model for delivery and support of 14-19s in education and training.

We think that the time is right for technology to be embedded within delivery of learning across the board – whether for children, adults, formal and informal. The technological infrastructure is broadly available. The knowhow in the public and private sectors is there. And learners themselves have an appetite for learning using new social media, web based technologies, and games. Alongside this, in many occupations, fluency in the use of ICT tools and systems is a prerequisite for successful employment, so that learning using ICT (rather than about ICT) can kill two birds with one stone.

How do we know that technology can enhance and enable learning? We give two examples.

learndirect has successfully helped more than 3 million learners improve their skills since it introduced online learning ten years ago. Around 300,000 adults in last 2 years have achieved their first qualifications online. Over 1000 new learners per month visit the learndirect web site, do an assessment and enroll to do a course online – with no need to walk into a physical building or make an appointment to speak to someone about their learning face-to-face. Each month 10,000 learners gain a formal qualification with learn direct, with a steady average learner satisfaction rate of 96%. On a much smaller scale, around 50 students a year are gaining GCSE English Grade A*-C (with well over 30% achieving A*/A and around 90% achieving A*-C) on a wholly online GCSE English course run by The Sheffield College, where one of us is a Governor.

Alongside these two direct examples no-one should underestimate the strides made by the Open University to put online learning and assessment right at the heart of its operations.

The web and the internet involve a change in knowledge creation and dissemination that is every bit as revolutionary as was the invention of printing: all over the developed world the opportunities presented by online learning are being grasped.

The Wolf report’s silence on the role and importance of learning technology in improving vocational education (and the parallel gap on this same issue in the earlier Skills for Sustainable Growth Strategy Document) can and should be remedied.

ALT and learndirect are ready, with others in the field, to help to bring this about. 

Kirstie Donnelly MBE is learndirect’s Director – Service Design & Development. Since its inception in 1997 leardirect, as sponsoring member of ALT, has helped more than 3 million people gain new skills and nationally recognised qualifications in maths, English, IT and more

Seb Schmoller is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), an independent membership charity whose mission is to ensure that use of learning technology is effective and efficient, informed by research and practice, and grounded in an understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities, and the situations into which they are placed

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