'Apprenticeships cannot be a substitute for all vocational learning'
How we measure the progress of our young people, and the environments in which they develop, says a great deal about our society and what we view as our priorities for the future.
Every year, students who are completing their A-Levels pour over university guides to work out where they would like to study. So too do employers working out which graduates they are going to pursue. Each year, children who have done well in their Sats are heralded by their school as amongst the best and brightest the school has ever had. Those same Sats scores help parents, who like their older offspring scour institution rankings, decide where they want to send their youngest to school.
For many years this has been the priority for policy makers, and the press, for measuring the development of our young people and for assessing the strength of our education system. For just as many years, this has not been the process undertaken by all students. Far from it.
Every year, our FE colleges – as well as hundreds of independent providers - take on students who wish to pursue vocational qualifications and learn practical skills they can take into the work place and, most importantly, into our local economies and the communities they serve. And yet, if one were to survey the landscape through our newspapers and television, you would think the only qualifications achieved by young people are those held aloft on A-level results day or those that are heralded with mortar boards being launched into the air. How we celebrate the achievements of our young people says as much as how we measure their progress.
All this may now be changing. At the very top of government, following one of the most surprising election results in a generation, the focus is falling increasingly on practical and technical skills. Much of that election campaign was wrestled on economic grounds, most notably solving the ‘productivity puzzle’ and how best to utilise the talents of our young people. The Labour party, when launching their own education manifesto, promised to deliver parity of esteem. The Liberal Democrats cited their achievements in government in delivering more apprenticeships across the UK. And the Conservative party, now in government alone, pledged to deliver 3 million new apprenticeships by the close of this parliament. These changes, if delivered, are to be welcomed.
But we should be a little cautious, because any focus on apprenticeships must enable equal access for all. We all recognise the need for high-quality practical, technical and vocational learning across FE, and the country at large. But apprenticeships cannot be a substitute for all vocational learning. They cannot be heralded as the only alternative to the "traditional" process from school to university. So often, we are told that too much of the workforce is "low skilled" and that jobs must be created that demand higher skills, in order to drive upwards the number of people who seek those higher skills. We must then value the vocational courses which do just this. Level 2 qualifications and below must be credited as vital early steps on the pathway to the higher skills that have now found favour in the upper reaches of government.
Students who seek vocational qualifications at these levels have already failed to have their potential unlocked in school. This mistake must not be repeated by a government which, in pursuit of higher skills, forgets that the top reaches of the ladder come only after the earlier rungs.
So we must also change how we celebrate the achievements of students as they climb that ladder. Whilst our local economies thrive with the arrival of skilled graduates from our colleges and apprenticeship programmes, it is so important that we clearly and publicly celebrate their achievements in getting there. VQ Day, organised and championed by the Edge foundation, gives colleges, employers and students the opportunity to showcase the work we all do in providing the next generation of skilled young people. Let us all join in that celebration.
Lynne Sedgmore is executive director of the 157 Group of colleges. She is writing to mark VQ Day, a celebration of vocational education and training.