Without a doubt the UK has one of the best university systems in the world, with academic routes that are easy to understand for young people and which have served us incredibly well over the years. However, compared to other countries around the world, technical and professional education is still very complex and confusing for young people in the UK. In many cases it is failing to adequately deliver the employees of the future that businesses so desperately need today, especially now that we have a skills shortage and in particular a STEM skills shortage.
To give you an example, students aiming for a future in plumbing are not presented with a clear route into the job. Instead, they face a bewildering selection of 33 qualifications to choose from. When a young person has no idea what route to go down, this can be extremely off-putting. Equally these subjects are often described as vocational whereby students focus on developing complementary practical skills relating to their chosen occupation. This has in some ways pigeonholed the vocational career path as less important (particularly in the eyes of parents) than perhaps going down the academic route and onto university.
This is one of the reasons that the government is determined to create a new system of technical and professional routes that is high status, valued and clear. In fact, you may be aware that plans were announced in November last year by Skills Minster, Nick Boles, for ground-breaking reforms to technical and professional education (TPE), which in my eyes will set England's system on a par with the best in the world.
Up to 20 specific new professional and technical routes will be created, leading up to employment or degree-level study, which will be as easy to understand and as desirable as academic routes.
These new routes will lead young people from compulsory schooling into employment and the highest levels of technical competence, which for many will mean moving on to apprenticeships or sponsored degrees. The government is committed to ensuring the large majority of young people go into university or an apprenticeship, and has pledged to deliver three million quality apprenticeship starts by 2020.
This is music to my ears. I fully support this move and certainly as a University Technical College we have been championing the need for more technical and professional qualifications since we opened our doors back in 2013. I also believe that 'vocational equity' really does need to be improved and parents need to be as passionate about this type of route into a career as they are about other more traditionally coveted professions. Let's face it the NHS, education, even professional services and many of the 'career jobs' (doctors, teachers, lawyers and so on) have gone through quite radical changes in recent years and are perhaps not as desirable as they once were, especially in the wake of government cuts and austerity measures.
Times are certainly changing. Technology has not only become all pervasive, but it has automated and in many cases changed the shape and focus of many roles. Technology has also provided access to more information. We are now more informed and as a consequence who knows what the job of an accountant or an auditor, for example, might look like in twenty years' time.
As a school that focuses on computer science and engineering we are now seeing the trend towards technical and professional qualifications reflected in our numbers to the point that although we have only been open for three years we are now oversubscribed in Year 10 and Year 12. Our industry partners are also recognising the importance of apprenticeships. This year we have our first Civil Engineer Apprenticeships in partnership with Peter Brett Associates and we intend to have more of these types of apprenticeships in the years to come.
Of course it has been easier for us because we were set up with an industry focus and a curriculum that reflects this from day 1 rather than schools who have had to change their image and indeed their focus areas and curriculum.
What is interesting is when we opened in 2013 we did a poll of our students and at that time around half of our students were looking to go on to university. I did a straw poll just the other day and only two out of 20 in the class that I was teaching were considering university. The rest expected to go down the apprenticeship or sponsored degree route. I think this is a clear indication of how much times have changed over the past couple of years and how young people certainly know their minds and what they want to do. So rather than push against it, or try and deter them, we might find that they are the ones who are ahead of the game and are more forward thinking than their parents.
Jo Harper is principal of UTC Reading