From education to employment

Outdated stereotypes are keeping young people away from vocational learning

Research published by The Edge Foundation, an education charity championing practical and technical learning, shows young people are being discouraged from choosing a vocational route. They might be told they are “too clever” for vocational training or they will be “more successful” if they take an academic path.

These outdated stereotypes are completely out of touch with the reality of practical and technical training, training that I see every day in the two colleges that I lead. Excellent training that is giving students ‘the edge’ in their career prospects.

Many of our students progress to higher education. Others choose employment. One student who left us in the summer with a triple distinction in his BTEC Level 3 in Engineering swapped a university place for an apprenticeship with a top Formula One engine manufacturer.

FE Colleges are absolutely brilliant at supporting students, whatever their starting point, in achieving their full potential. Last year we championed a government-led “Supported Internships” pilot, supporting 16 young people with learning difficulties or disabilities into work placements, many of whom went on to secure permanent employment.

At NWHC we work with over 1,000 employers and we offer a dynamic curriculum that reflects regional skills gaps and priorities. This ensures we are developing students with the skills industry needs today and into the future. We also run two studio schools which specialise in regional skills priority areas, where students can combine practical training with academic study.

Through the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) we are lobbying for greater recognition of FE and vocational education. I am the board member responsible for Skills on the Board of the Leicester and Leicestershire LEP and I chair the skills business group for the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP. Our relationships with LEPs are business-critical.

Our tutors bring a rich seam of experience to their teaching, many are teacher practitioners, combining teaching with working in their area of expertise which helps us deliver a truly inspirational learning experience. We also encourage our alumni, from Michelin starred chefs to high flying cabin crew, to come back into college to inspire learners about what can be achieved.

Another way we drive excellence in workplace skills is through competition and we are one of the few colleges in the country with a specific strategy around competitions. At the 2013 Skills Show, NWHC students won more medals than any other college team in England. We have also pioneered one of the first inter-college foundation learning competitions. Our competitions strategy brings many benefits to students, stretching their technical capabilities and developing their softer skills including communication, team work, confidence and problem solving.

Those of us who champion FE know how fulfilling vocational careers can be and the vast opportunities out there for the taking. I started my career training in health and social care, working for the NHS before moving into teaching and then later education management.

VQ Day, The Skills Show and other national initiatives like National Apprenticeship Week present a brilliant opportunity to spread the word. But there is always more we can do to get the message out there.

The aim of our marketing strategy at NWHC is to inform parents, carers and prospective students about the benefits of practical and technical learning, with a current focus on improved job prospects. We are working hard to develop our social media presence as we know we need to be in the same online space as those we are trying to connect with. For example we have discovered Facebook is highly effective at reaching and communicating with parents and carers.

Our Matrix-accredited careers team and our tutors all play a part in helping students make the right choices for their futures, before they join us, while they are with us, and whenever in the future they might need us. And through our growing college-led multi academy trust, The Midland Academies Trust, we are deepening our partnerships with local secondary academies and associated primaries to enhance the careers guidance available in schools. Through the Trust we have developed a new package of careers guidance which is in high demand from local schools.

I am a passionate ambassador for the value of vocational training will continue to do all I can to champion its value to individuals, employers, the economy and the wider community.

Marion Plant OBE is principal and chief executive North Warwickshire & Hinckley College

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