The annual schoolgates spectacle that is GCSE results day usually brings with it much media interview talk of A-level plans and uni hopes, but Andy Gannon picked up on a rare, but welcome namedrop for vocational education this year.
Those of us who work in FE know the value of vocational pathways through education.
We see the success of young people, some of whom experience it in a way they never did at school, and some of whom have realised that it is just a better choice for them.
The swathe of interest in the vocational system from policymakers in recent months is also an indication of its importance.
But we also know that, for a great many people, vocational education remains a blind spot.
BBC coverage on that day only serves to illustrate just how far we have to go in promoting the benefits of vocational education
It was therefore heartening to see, on GCSE results day, both the BBC and ITV taking up the theme of progression into vocational courses as part of their coverage.
However, a snapshot of the BBC coverage on that day only serves to illustrate just how far we have to go in promoting the benefits of vocational education — or, to put it more professionally, in providing appropriate information, advice and guidance (IAG) to all young people.
I paraphrase here, but the all-important gist remains.
A remarkably well-informed reporter interviews a girl who has just got a plethora of As to Cs.
She is justifiably pleased and says she intends to do A-levels and then go to university to do ‘something sport-related’ because it is ‘not just classroom-based and is more active’.
So far, so good. Here is a young person with a clear direction (quite an achievement in itself), who understands enough about how she wants to learn to make a sensible decision about her pathway through higher education.
But the reporter challenges her. Why, if she is so clear that she wants to learn in an active way, is she doing A-levels and not taking a more vocational option now?
Her response is revealing — ‘because I want to be more educated and get a better job, and not just go straight into a job now’.
The message is clear — in order to be ‘better educated’, the only option is A-levels and, more to the point, she equates a ‘vocational option’ simply with ‘getting a job’. You wonder whether she has ever heard of full-time FE, or even apprenticeships.
And so the reporter moves to the teacher who talks about the guidance given to pupils on this important day. He rightly says individual need is paramount, and acknowledges that, for ‘some’ of the pupils (clearly, the minority), staying at school is not an option and they will find ‘alternative provision’.
I was tempted to send in a list of local FE Colleges, as the interview left me wondering a little whether their existence was known of
The teacher then describes the ‘special programme’ being put on to ‘allow’ those with grade D or below in English and maths to stay in school for a year to retake – ‘possibly alongside an A-level or even a BTec’. In other words, the school is actively advocating that some of its pupils stick with them for one more year without the possibility of accessing the full range of vocational options and simply delaying their entry into meaningful full-time study until they are 17.
And then the crunch. Our impressive reporter asks why more of the pupils are not going on now to vocational education or apprenticeships, given that these options are so much in the public eye at a time when the country needs more skilled workers. The teacher, slightly flummoxed, refers the reporter to the school’s really good record with BTecs, which demonstrates why vocational education is very important. I was tempted to send in a list of local FE Colleges, as the interview left me wondering a little whether their existence was known of.
Of course, I don’t know the full context of the school, and I may well be doing them a disservice on the basis of a short piece of coverage. But, as a nutshell encapsulation of the distance yet to be travelled by IAG in schools, I wonder whether those who have advocated absolute school autonomy in this area read as much into this five minutes of TV as I did.
Andy Gannon, director of policy, PR and research at the 157 Group