From education to employment

Embedding broad educational ‘stairways’ are key to post-16 education reform

Candace Miller, Managing Director, SFJ Awards

Valuing progression and achievement for all 

In my thirty years of working across vocational education and training in the UK, there has never been a more pivotal time for us to strengthen the entire post-16 system of today, to provide the right, relevant and diverse opportunities for lifelong learning for everyone beyond tomorrow. However, as highlighted by last week’s level 2 and level 3 qualification results, if the government’s welcome commitment to ‘levelling-up’ the nation is to truly help us build back better skills, better jobs and a brighter future for our workforce, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill must be underpinned by well-planned and demonstrable flexible progression routes, and most crucially, supported by significant investment.

After a week where the national media spotlight was rightly shone on ‘results days’, following an unparalleled year of uncertainty and disruption, we saw a fitting celebration of the incredible hard work and resilience shown by learners, enabled through the sheer commitment and expertise of teachers, assessors and other education and training professionals. Yet, while many Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQ) results were published alongside A-Level and GSCE grades, the headlines on the latter far outweighed the former.

This disparity feels at odds with the narrative from the government’s pledge to escalate the value of practical and vocational education through its landmark level 3 reform. If proper investment is to be prioritised, and skills levels at all ages and across the economy raised, then better recognition and praise for achievements in all facets of our education and skills development system must be promoted proportionately – not something we simply talk about but never do.

Equally, if the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee is to genuinely meet the immediate skills needs of individuals and employers across the country, levelling-up and opening-up opportunities for more people, at every stage of life, it must ensure the reductions in the range of supported qualifications does not translate into limiting choice and accessibility. A meaningful and diverse system must be embedded, whereby people’s skills and competence achieved are recognised regardless of what ‘stage of the ladder’ they are on.

While the analogy of ladders is used a lot in the current educational debate, the issue I have with the ‘ladder’ metaphor is there is only one way up, and one way down. Yet the path to career success is seldom linear. Opportunities change and the skills and expertise needed evolve – never more so than when de-stabilising events such as a global pandemic come to the fore, or stark challenges like global warming face our future workforce. The task therein is for the government to achieve an education policy to match. And this is where I think the metaphor I favour to describe what our SFJ Awards level 2 and level 3 qualifications offer the learner and future workforce is a better fit – ‘stairways’.

Stairways allow people to access a range of levels and locations. On a staircase, you can stop off at a given level because that is as far as you need, or perhaps want to go. Some may go higher on the same stairway; others may stop off at one level that ends up leading them to a variety of different destinations. Educational policies which favour the ‘stairway’ view lend support from one level to another and value diversity in the pathways followed through education, particularly appreciating vocational and non-school learning experiences. Stairways embody choice and allow an easy passage at a pace that suits the individual better than narrow ladders.

Currently however, the government’s own impact assessment from the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 acknowledges the significant affect it will have on the reduction in choice and accessibility. While we have not yet had the results of the consultation on qualifications at level 2, the question remains as to whether the ‘lowest rungs of the ladder’, in the view the government are taking, will mean these are robust enough or broad enough to keep on representing effective first steps on a stairway. Or will they be too narrow? Too tightly focussed on channelling people into too few pathways? Leaving some students undervalued and with more limited progression routes.

Until then, it is more important now than ever that, regardless of students’ results last week, we as a sector continue to work together to share a consistent set of evidence-based messages on the entire suite of options that the further education ‘stairway’ can offer. Whether that’s a university degree, an apprenticeship, or a degree level apprenticeship, further vocational training or straight into the workforce, hopefully with ongoing skill development, we must empower learners to make informed choices which suit their skills and strengths, their passions and their ambitions.

Ultimately, there must be breadth of opportunity at all levels of the stairway to take everyone to wherever they wish to go. Let us be guided by asking: “How can we help all people find their strengths and use them to be successful and happy in the future?” rather than “How do we get each person to climb one of a few narrow ladders?”.

Candace Miller, Managing Director, SFJ Awards

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