It is no secret that the education sector is going through a somewhat turbulent time, as is every other sector in the current climate. However never have there been so many choices available to learners; GCSEs, A-Levels, the diploma, vocational qualifications, apprenticeships – with so many options it can be extremely difficult to decide which path to take.
There have been endless debates about whether A Levels reign supreme over vocational learning, and on how long it will take for the diploma to be accepted, but the truth of the matter is this: what works for one learner will not necessarily work for another.
Catering to individuals' needs is vital, but we also must not lose sight of the clarity and focus that's essential for our sector to provide the country with the skills it needs to thrive.
Different areas of education have been under much media scrutiny at certain points in the year so far. We are asked annually if A-Levels are growing ever-easier, yet the other side of the coin suggests that academic qualifications remain superior to any other category of achievement. More recently it has also been highlighted that the number of vocationally-qualified people in the UK far outweighs the number of jobs available.
Vast changes are occurring behind the scenes within various qualification categories, such as the new A* A-Level grade, the imminent transition of NVQs to CBQs (Competency Based Qualifications) and the NQF becoming the QCF.
Another concept has recently been thrown in for good measure – the imminent debut of the University Technical College (UTC). The first of its kind is due to open its doors to learners in autumn 2012 in Walsall. UTCs will bear a strong focus on vocational and work-based learning for 14 to 19 year olds; however the necessity of these institutions is already being debated before they have even been trialled. Not only has it been argued that colleges already provide the courses and technical content that these new-found specialist institutions propose to offer, but their claim to the 'university' status has also worried critics, who accuse UTCs of potentially misleading students.
This must all be a little mind-boggling to the 14 to 19 learner, and probably equally confusing for those looking to re-train or go back to learning as adults. It is certainly a lot for those operating in the further education sector to take in, which is why we have been working closely with our centres to ensure that any changes in the market are fully understood and that changes are implemented with the least amount of disruption possible. This way, the learner remains largely uninterrupted and is left to focus on studying and achieving those vital qualifications to be successful in the workplace.
So, does this mean that education should be streamlined to provide a 'one size fits all' remedy? Should certain qualifications be scrapped to refine such a complicated education system?
Variety, as they say, is the spice of life therefore in my opinion, the answers are emphatically 'no' on both counts. Every qualification that is available in the current marketplace will have relevance to the career and personal development of certain groups of individuals. We simply have to ensure that the right learning and teaching offerings are being made available to the right people and at the right times – and that the information about these offerings is communicated as clearly as possible.
What should also be commonplace in the learning structure is the teaching of core literacy and numeracy skills through specialised supplementary courses. NCFE's Get Set for Work suite of qualifications is one example of such a programme, which provides learners with the essential vocational, numeracy, literacy, ICT and personal skills required by employers.
Schools and colleges, teachers and parents, careers services and the Government must recognise that even from an early age, learning is a personal, individual journey. People's learning styles and abilities differ right across the board and how people shape their education is an entirely personal choice. Learners can seek all the advice in the world from family, friends, teachers and careers advisors – in the end however it is the individual interests, ability, talents and ambitions of each learner that will define their future success.
David Grailey is the chief executive of NCFE, the qualification awarding body
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