From where we are sitting at the moment, we"re looking at vocational training from 14 years upwards, so although we are an FE college we do a lot of training with 14 year olds who are coming out of school. We have built and invested in several rurally based skills centres around our area that have facilities for construction, etc.
What it ultimately means, is that young people will come out of school at 16 with what is either a pre-apprenticeship qualification or what we call a young-apprenticeship or programme led apprenticeship. They"re going into the workforce at 16 with some skills already in that vocational area.
And then obviously what we"re hoping they"ll do is stay with us on a full apprenticeship programme working with the employer.
Now the other change is the new national diplomas coming in from 2008. Those diplomas will be around those vocational skills areas, and will mean that young people have the opportunity to specialise in a vocational skills area of their choice, while still keeping the core subjects such as Maths, Science, English, etc.
What's important from our perspective is this: while employers can complain that we are not putting students out with the right types of skills and experience, it only works if employers engage in the process as well. If we"re going to have young people taking part in vocational programmes, they need to have experience in the workplace, and part of those increased flexibility programmes is actually work experience. Even if you have a skills centre, unless you get a young person experience in the workplace as well, it is not the same.
It is a triangulation between the college, the training provider, the employer, and the young person. It only works if all those parties are signed up to that. Our response is that we must all bring something to the party. But the difficulty we have is actually engaging enough employers in that process.
What we have done at the college is to restructure our areas looking at, specifically, employer engagement in every way possible. There are two apprenticeship recruitment advisers at the college and their job is to recruit employers to take on young people; they basically act as a dating agency.
I"m not sure how much this kind of work is known about, or if we"re fairly much at the forefront in this kind of approach. In Sussex, we have also got a clearing house for apprentices, like UCAS. Training providers will log on to that, and young people will appear in the clearing house. Again, it's a matching service.
Previously, this type of vocational training used to have quite low success rates. However, we are now looking at success rates in some areas that are matching A-levels. What we are trying to create for young people is something whereby they consider vocational training as equal to academic options.
An apprenticeship programme can, in some senses, be more complex [than academic routes]. It asks for vocational skills, but also for academic ability. It is definitely not a second rate option, as it can become very complicated. There is a whole framework of qualifications you must complete.
What we need to do is ensure that people see there is a progressive pathway through the young apprenticeship programme and then into a foundation degree. From our perspective, we need to ensure this option is being sold, and is being sold to young people when they are in school. I"m not sure we have got that right.
We have to sell the message out there a little bit more. But it is there; it is growing, and young people like it.
Claire Parry, Head of Partnership and Employer Relations, Sussex Downs College.
Tomorrow: Sue Buss, Principal of Thanet College, continues the debate exclusively on FE News