Last week’s World Economic Forum league table highlighted the continued impact on the UK’s competitive position of its lower skilled workforce. Business has long been lobbying for an education system that matches the needs of the economy, creates a highly skilled and flexible workforce for the future and, eventually, makes a significant contribution to improving our economic performance.
It is often overlooked that school is not just a place where young people go to learn, it is also where they receive their preparation for life and, in particular, their working life. Employers require well-rounded individuals who are capable of inquiry and application as well as being able to demonstrate a positive attitude towards learning. They want to know what a young person has achieved and how they will contribute to the success of their business. In response, young people need to be able to demonstrate the skills and attributes they have developed through a variety of learning experiences in a variety of environments. Therefore, there is a need to expose young people to as wide a range of learning experiences in education as possible, including vocational and work based learning.
For too long, vocational and work-based learning has been seen as a dumping ground solely for the disaffected and disinclined, and for those with a poor academic record. This has meant that status and take-up of vocational skills in the UK have fallen behind that of many other European countries and acted as a significant drag on our economic performance and attempts to improve our productivity. While many young people have found a new motivation and inspiration for learning in vocational education, this is largely due to the change in learning styles and subject, rather than because non-academic qualifications are “easier”. Vocational qualifications such as Advanced Apprenticeships in engineering are demanding and rigorous, reflecting the needs of an increasingly high-tech industry. They also provide an alternative route to higher education which is just as valid as academic A levels. Additionally, students pursuing this route into Higher Education may be able to study part-time with the support of their employer, thus avoiding the levels of debt which are increasingly unappealing to young people.
The benefits to the economy from the proposed reforms for 14 -19 year olds contained in the Tomlinson report will depend on a range of factors. The first is recognition, articulated by government, and taken up by education, of the need for, and value of, a range of learning and qualifications to be available to all, not just the disaffected. This means that those students who excel at school must be given the opportunity to explore vocational and non-academic learning, without fear of stigma or of compromising their future plans for higher learning. It means an end to the view that those who reach high levels of professional excellence through the work-based route have done it “the hard way”, and a recognition that structured learning in the workplace provides a set of skills which employers value highly and match the needs of the economy.
In order for this to succeed, all young people need to have access to impartial and accurate careers information and advice. Schools sometimes find it difficult to support or communicate the range of opportunities for high-achieving students, as too few teachers have worked in industry and so fail to recognise the challenge this can provide. This leads to the majority of brighter pupils pursuing the traditional academic routes, and missing out on the chance to explore alternatives.
Teachers and students will need the support of a variety of organisations and individuals if they are to provide access to a wider range of subjects, including the vocational. This may mean that people from business, Further and Higher Education will need to come into schools to help deliver particular aspects of a course, or provide technical support for teachers. To aid this industry supports the introduction of a “fast track” teaching qualification to facilitate a greater exchange of staff between Industry and Academia. This would ensure that the wealth of knowledge and application of technology that engineers bring can be as up to date as possible. In many cases, engineers already have substantial teaching experience, having already trained Apprentices, for example. If they are in teacher training full-time for long periods, this will inevitably reduce the effectiveness of their Industry knowledge and is likely to deter them from considering a permanent move into teaching. It may also be appropriate for some students to spend part of their time learning at institutions other than their school.
Industry also recognises it has a key part to play in delivering improvements to the range of options offered to students. Firstly, it can provide high-quality work experience and business placements for students, giving them the chance to develop skills which they will find useful in whatever career they choose to follow and teaching them about the kinds of attitudes and behaviours which make them ready for work. Secondly, it can provide role models who have first hand experience about working in a particular job or sector. Finally, it can get involved in a whole range of initiatives to bring schools and businesses closer ““ such as the release of staff to contribute through school and college governing bodies, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Scheme, and the sponsorship of specialist schools in Engineering, Science, and Technology.
Aiding the acceleration of knowledge transfer links between business and academia, along with the creation of stronger university/business partnerships will also help to address the UKs long term failure to translate the strength of its science base into innovative and effective economic performance.
The Tomlinson Reforms, beneath the headlines about scrapping A levels and GCSE, need to provide the impetus for a fundamental shift in thinking about education and its relationship to economic performance. They will need to provide young people with the skills, information and enthusiasm to pursue a fulfilling career in a properly valued sector.
If introduced in a realistic and well-supported manner, with teachers, parents, students, and employers all moving in the same direction, then the proposed reforms will make a significant contribution to removing the shackles on the economy imposed by an under educated workforce.
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