From education to employment

Post-16 skills plan – shining a light on high quality vocational education

Ruth Gilbert, CEO of the Career Colleges Trust

Vocational education in this country has been subject to a number of reviews over the past few years. Despite the overall consensus that high quality technical pathways are important, Government policies have not always previously reflected this.

The recently publicised Government’s Post-16 Skills plan addresses the recommendations made by a panel, led by Lord Sainsbury, following its Independent Review of Technical Education.

To sum up, it allows young people to choose between technical or academic qualifications after their GCSEs. Those opting for a technical route will be able to choose between a two-year college course – with standards and content led by employers – or an apprenticeship.

Without doubt, there are some very good suggestions in this plan. Creating 15 vocational pathways to simplify and clarify technical education is a valid point – as is the principle of establishing just one exam board per pathway. However it will be absolutely essential to get the content right, with standards set by industry specialists in each area.

The delineation of ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways appears to be slightly fudged. Schools can continue to offer both pathways and there is also the option to offer some shorter vocational qualifications alongside GCSE and A Levels. Some clarity is needed here.

Once again, the importance of careers advice is highlighted. No-one can debate the fact that careers guidance for young people is not good enough and has not been for some time. In this plan, there is still a huge onus on schools to help their students decide which pathway to follow post-16. We have no idea yet of what shape legislation will take, and what teeth is might have, to ensure a wider range of education providers, including FE colleges, private training providers and employers may present great career opportunities to students in schools. 

The Career Colleges Trust has been saying for some time that children should have exposure to careers information at a much, much younger age. Ideally, this should start at the age of 7, enabling the future generation to see a wide range of career options, meet employers and experience the world of work.

Employers who work with Career Colleges are a very active part of conveying the great career opportunities in their industries, to encourage young people to progress through specialist pathways, alongside a core, broad education. Critically, Career Colleges engage 14 to 16 year olds in vocational/technical pathways, such as healthcare, digital technology, modern methods of construction, and hospitality and catering. Rather than forcing a choice between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ at a young age, it provides both, through extended study days and real work experience, enterprise and digital education.

It is no secret that schools can be reluctant to let ‘third parties’ such as colleges and training providers in to talk to students. At a time of budget cuts and financial constraints, schools simply don’t want to lose good students at 16 (or 14). But this is not acceptable. Different people thrive in different environments and many people are far more suited to a hands-on, practical working environment. Every young person needs to be aware of the options and I feel that we must push strongly for clear legislation in this area.

As far as Career Colleges go, the impact on 14-16 pathways is currently unclear. Our teachers must be equipped with the expertise to advise students on post-16 options – or certainly outsource this role if need be.

Overall, I am of the feeling that any clarity and streamlining of the 20,000 technical course currently on offer has to be a good thing. Ensuring that industry is involved at a fundamental level is also key and I very much look forward to seeing an increase in employer engagement across all industries.

The Government expects the first of the new technical education routes to be made available from September 2019 – with the rest to be introduced by September 2022. There is an awful lot of work needed on the detail between now and then but striving for high quality vocational pathways and pushing for better, and earlier, careers advice, can only be a good thing.

Ruth Gilbert, CEO of the Career Colleges Trust

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