Robert Halfon’s speech this week was – as you would expect – a provocative and compelling tour de force. The Education Select Committee chair has ideas, energy and above all commitment. He offers bold new insights to address some of the big issues we are all trying to grapple with in FE. It is extremely encouraging to hear a senior politician speak so passionately about his belief in the importance of social justice, but crucially, offering coherent and potentially workable solutions.
There were a number of points within his speech about which I feel particularly strongly. Firstly, he talked about the employers who are “crying out for skills in a whole range of different sectors, from electricity, gas and water to construction, transport and manufacturing.” He is absolutely right. This is why it is so vital that schools, colleges and universities all play their part to engage employers in order to develop learning pathways and experiences that provide not just academic nourishment but unashamedly focused and practical skills so that when young people leave places of learning, they can find meaningful paid work that rewards their studies and enhances their future career prospects.
It is precisely for this reason that we at Gateshead College work so closely with employers across the region, they have to be committed to this too after all. We do not simply consult them: they are our partners, working alongside us to develop and deliver a curriculum which ensures our students leave with the skills that employers need. This works and is why from our 2015-16 cohort overall, 94 per cent of students had a positive destination securing a job, apprenticeship or moving onto an FE or HE programme.
I was particularly interested in his views about breaking down the barriers between technical and academic courses. He took issue with this notion of pursuing a “parity of esteem” between the two (a turn of phrase I am sure I myself have at times been guilty of). He is right; the two should be seen as part of the same system of self-learning. That is why the creation of T Levels will, I hope, ensure the next generation thinks differently about the technical route.
Despite the work that still needs to be done to create this new streamlined learning route, the language of the ‘T Level’ itself is a positive start. I would, however, flag two challenges. The first is psychological: parents, teachers and careers advisers need to reset the dial on what works for pupils. We find ourselves in a situation where it too often feels like the only way for a young person to succeed is to study A Levels and go to university. As Robert Halfon says, “We have become obsessed with full academic degrees in this country.”
The research shows that a staggering one in four young people drop out or do not complete their first year of A Levels – likely to be the result at least in part of the systematic promotion of an academic route which is not in every pupil’s best interests. Such a narrow focus on academia denies many young people the fulfilment of succeeding in vocational areas they may be naturally adept in, as well as being a gross misdirection of resources.
The second is financial: he makes the point that the technical and academic routes should be “equally well supported”. Right now they are not. Primary and secondary school funding per pupil doubled between 1998 and 2016: FE funding was cut by 50 per cent over the same period and FE colleges get significantly less per pupil than sixth-form colleges – a disparity that is all the more difficult to accept when you consider the vast sums that colleges like ours invest in high-tech labs and workshops, particularly in the digital and engineering spaces.
Also, like many other FE colleges, we employ dual professionals; industry specialists who work in high demand job areas and who often expect high salaries to be incentivised away from their sector and into the classroom. Our ability to do this is critical if we are to offer world-class technical training. If the government is serious about putting the technical route on a par with the academic route, I hope this is something that will be addressed.
There were many other aspects of the speech that merit a far more thorough response than is possible here but in short I am deeply encouraged that our sector is finally having this conversation and that engaged MPs like Robert Halfon are championing the excellent work we do across the sector and also pushing all of us to think out of the box when it comes to meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
Judith Doyle is principal and chief executive of Gateshead College