The greatest failure of the 14-19 education system is not so much a failure to value practical education, as a failure to ensure that the great majority of young people reach a reasonable standard of education by the age of 16. Fewer than half of boys get 5 good GSCEs including maths and English.
The lack of language skills, maths and other STEM subjects, plus the so-called soft skills such as creativity and teamwork are frequently raised by employers. The TUC believes that all young people should have a broad education, including practical education, so that by the time they are 16 they are equipped to take on new choices or specialisations at the next stage.
In our submission to Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education, commissioned by Michal Gove, the Education Secretary, we said that the three most important changes we seek are:
- Equal funding – the fact that practical/vocational education is in general less well resourced than academic/general education; a key test of any new system will be to ensure transparency, simplicity and parity of funding.
- Bridging the worlds of work and education – a few days of work experience is often the only contact that young people will have with the world of work. There should be a radical strengthening of partnerships between school/college and local employers, building on the pioneering work of the Education and Employment Taskforce and using the valuable linkages provided by unions. What better than talking directly to a postal worker, hairdresser or scientist to find out about a particular career.
- Information advice and guidance – the TUC strongly supports an all-age service which should be based on a well-resourced central website, supplemented by free telephone help lines, with trained staff in schools and colleges providing encouragement, support and advice.
For the majority, 16 is the age when young people are mature enough to make decisions on their future education, but, for some, it could be too late. An increasing number of 14 year olds are learning successfully in colleges in preference to schools. There needs to be a flexible education framework that allows this to continue without shutting the door to different options down the line. Age will become a greater issue when the leaving age rises: NEETs will become truants. Instead of addressing this though quasi-criminal sanctions, we need to ensure that the right choices are available well in advance of the leaving age. A clear distinction needs to be drawn between dealing with social inclusion and educational issues. If apprenticeships, particularly at Level 2, are seen primarily as a means of occupying NEETs, the brand will become tarnished.
The TUC supports the coalition government’s aim to expand apprenticeships scheme and unions are keen to play an active role in promoting this work-based route. However there are significant equality and diversity issues. The gender gap between male and female apprentices is 21 per cent. This is not just because girls and women are to be found mainly in the low paid sectors such as hair dressing and child care (where BME apprentices are most likely to work), in retail, where there is less gender segregation, the pay gap between men and women is 16 per cent. This must be addressed. The TUC would also like to see a greater emphasis on quality. We would like to see data on each sector scheme on the duration of apprenticeships, information on average time ‘away from workstation’ and progression routes to higher learning.
Unions can play a major role in bridging the information gap between schools and the world of work. We look forward to Professor Wolf’s interim report before the end of the year and will continue to make our contribution.
Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and training organisation
Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson: