Mind the gap. Williamson should look at education in the round

13 Oct 2019, 5:05

The FE sector will be pleased to have a champion in the new secretary of state, writes Ruth Gilbert, but as long as this false separation of schools and colleges continues we’re unlikely to “beat Germany by 2029”

Gavin Williamson’s announcement of the government’s ambition to make English technical education rival Germany’s within a decade makes it clear that there is now a political will to improve the fortunes of further education. But improving and expanding technical education will not have the desired effects unless the same happens for careers education – and that means reform of admission policies.

The education secretary’s well-publicised support for FE is welcome, as are the raft of policy measures he has announced, including eight more institutes of technology and a commitment to £400 million extra funding for 16 to 19 provision.

But continuing to treat schooling and further education as separate silos is a big part of the problem. Investing in technical pathways will be of limited value if schools aren’t supported to promote educational options. The recruitment struggles of UTCs and the national colleges are testament to that.

Our education system is, at heart, set up around the needs of secondary schools, which are incentivised to achieve good academic results – for the past decade they have done this while managing ever-shrinking budgets. As a result many schools have had no choice but to reduce their curriculum offer, slashing creative options to focus on subjects favoured by accountability measures.

Our education system is, at heart, set up around the needs of secondary schools

This is a tragedy for young people who shine in the arts and other “non-academic” areas. Not only do they miss out on developing a wide range of talents, but they are given the wrong message that only “academic” routes can lead to future career success. Indeed, many only access FE after having gone through unhappy years learning subjects they can’t or don’t want to engage in, culminating in failure, and leaving colleges with the job of picking up the pieces – most easily done by accentuating and reinforcing their difference from schools.

The irony is that while the government is reforming the qualifications system and talking up the importance of skills education, the funding and admissions frameworks haven’t changed. Schools need to fill places, ideally with children who will achieve good grades at GCSE and A-level. As a result, those that inform young people fairly about alternative pathways do so despite every incentive not to.

Young people and their parents put trust in the school they attend, yet advice is rarely impartial. It makes a mockery of the government’s careers strategy. This well-intentioned document includes eight “Gatsby benchmarks” to ensure careers education reaches certain standards. Yet, somewhat predictably, few regions achieve them.

We should capitalise on the lessons we can learn from some of our international counterparts, including Norway, Finland and Canada, and their efforts to ensure long-term sustainability to their education systems with reformed school admissions and funding policies. Many give regional authorities autonomy over careers services to meet local need. Canada actively uses industry investment to bolster careers education in skills shortages and new growth areas.

It makes a mockery of the government’s careers strategy

There are great examples here already. In the East Riding of Yorkshire for example, a regional careers hub is being built by a partnership between a property developer, the local enterprise partnership (LEP), four local councils and employers. The Qdos Careers Hub will bring students, employers and others together to provide impartial careers advice. This collaborative approach could easily be replicated elsewhere in the country.

It’s frustrating to see so much positive reform on technical education developed in a silo. The government needs to take a much more holistic approach, empowering schools to offer real choice and to support students’ individual career ambitions. Without that, it’s hard to see how we will deliver Mr Williamson’s ambition of matching Germany’s technical and vocational education by 2029, let alone truly tackle the skills needs of our economy.

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