Traineeships are the latest example of the myth that colleges cannot provide a true-to-life working environment for learners, says Lynne Sedgmore.

There is a strange policy gap that English politicians of all parties fall into when thinking about vocational education.

They present choices for young people in terms of either going to university or taking an apprenticeship; linking and limiting their policy options to improving one or the other — if not both.

They bemoan the low status of vocational study but then undermine it further by their rhetoric, actions and misunderstandings.

We are not arguing that places at university or good apprenticeships are bad options. For many young people they are the right choice.

There is however, a third choice, made by far more young people than ever get the chance of an apprenticeship — the choice to undertake a course of vocational education in a college.

The numbers of apprenticeship places for 16 to 19-year-olds is small and falling. Despite consistent and high profile action from successive governments, vocational FE is the only realistic alternative to academic study, though you might not realise this listening to ministerial and policy sound bites.

The latest example of downplaying the FE contribution concerns work experience, now seen as an essential part of most study programmes for 16 to 19-year-olds and the dominant element of the new traineeship scheme.

It is highly unlikely that employers, who are rapidly turning their backs on 16 to 19-year-olds, will provide sufficient substantial and high quality places to meet the hugely expanded demand that curriculum reforms have generated.

One way of filling the gap is to build on the many and varied ways in which colleges provide realistic working environments (RWEs), but the Department for Education has gone out of its way to damn that valuable contribution with faint praise.

Again, we do not deny that a well-organised and substantial placement with a good and committed employer should be the gold standard in respect of work experience.

We do, however, challenge the implied
view that any work experience with an employer, however limited and contrived and short term, is always better than a well-planned programme in an RWE.

College farms, training restaurants, travel agencies, florists, hairdressing salons, body shops and a host of other commercially-managed activities offer valuable experience for students across a whole range of vocational areas. We ought to be celebrating what they achieve and finding ways of expanding their contribution rather than stigmatising them as second best.

A college enterprise can give students an insight into real commercial pressures and the experience of dealing directly with customers, but still have staff whose primary focus is on student learning and not shareholder profit

We need to use RWEs because of the shortfall in good employer placements, but we should also use them because they meet needs that employment-based options do not. After all (thankfully), surgeons do not learn the first steps in dissection on real patients and pilots make their first flights on a simulator.

A college enterprise can give students an insight into real commercial pressures and the experience of dealing directly with customers, but still have staff whose primary focus is on student learning and not shareholder profit.

Oddly, government is more than capable of celebrating this same approach outside FE. When University Technical Colleges (UTCs) reinvent this particular wheel it is (rightly) praised as forward-thinking and innovative. When Edge sets up a training hotel or Lord Baker announces a new raft of Career Colleges it is seen as progressive and exciting.

It’s a pity however that we don’t make more of the outstanding practice that already exists in plenty across FE.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director, 157 Group