"Inspiration, ambition and celebration" – the three words chosen as the theme for the inaugural Education Reform Summit. Hosted by the Education Foundation, the summit was backed by the Department for Education and in a packed day we heard from Secretary of State Michael Gove alongside a group of international education ministers and many other educationalists.
There was a huge amount of input from across the sector and whilst I felt inspired by some of the speakers and clear about my ambition for the future of the UK education system, I didn't quite feel ready to join the atmosphere of celebration that resounded throughout the room, particularly from Government. For me that time is yet to come...
Reflecting on the day, three things stood out for me that need to change if we are to fully realise the ambition of true education reform. Firstly, the complete lack of parity of esteem that still exists between vocational and academic. With a largely schools audience, the emphasis was clearly placed on academic and Michael Gove called for everyone to have an academic education up to the age of 16. If academic means high quality and rigorous and with choice then I agree, but if, as seems clear, it stands for a one-size-fits-all approach that will never work for some learners then I would strongly argue for a different approach.
At 14 our young people should be able to choose a relevant and rigorous educational pathway that can be professional or academic and that, crucially, keeps all routes open to them. This Government seems hooked on the drug of academic achievement as the only drug that works without considering other pathways to success and social mobility. This will only result in a set of disengaged learners who feel they have nothing to offer and struggle to get on in life.
This one-size-fits-all approach leads on to my second point around literacy and numeracy. Almost every speaker referenced this in some way, either as a real problem that needs to be solved or by giving examples of how they are tackling issues of literacy and numeracy. I was really inspired by some of the solutions offered by reformers but what struck me was that everyone seemed to be operating within the current structural status quo. While the end goal of a literate and numerate society is the same for all of us, I believe there need to be different ways of getting there.
Some young people will never pass GCSEs and getting them to retake and retake will not lead to success. Instead we should be offering contextualised maths and English as a route to success, with real world learning taking place within the context of a learner's subject focus. I was struck by a finding at a recent Pisa presentation comparing financial literacy levels among different countries – there was a direct correlation made between levels of financial literacy and the exposure young people had to managing finances in their everyday life through things like having their own bank account – a clear indication of the success of real world learning.
Finally I want to talk about employer engagement in education. This was rarely mentioned at the summit until the panel I hosted towards the end of the day on rebuilding the bridge between education and employment. Given we spend up to 20 years in education but over 40 in the workplace, surely there needs to be a real emphasis on employment throughout education? I don't think we can talk about education reform without trying to address the real problem of youth unemployment coupled with huge numbers of skills shortages.
All of the employers on the panel were passionate about supporting the education system in developing the right skills for the workplace but found the Government often stood in their way with muddled and contradictory policies. Collaboration was the word of the panel and there are definitely some great examples of partnerships between employers and education institutions out there. However, to really help our young people develop the skills they need to get on in life we need to invest properly in careers advice and guidance from a young age and use employers as inspiration for young people through programmes such as mentoring, employer visits and meaningful work experience.
My ambition for the next summit is that there really will be cause to celebrate but for me that will only happen when we have finally managed to create an education system that takes into account the needs of all learners and learning styles, more fully prepares young people for the world of work and recognises that many pathways can lead to success.
Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of City & Guilds Group, the awarding body