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'GCSEs may not be scrapped, but we have other options'

Instead of pigeonholing young people, we need to promote a more holistic education system, writes Kirstie Donnelly

GCSE resit exams progress colleges vocational T level qualifications

Instead of pigeonholing young people, we need to promote a more holistic education system, writes Kirstie Donnelly

The winds of change have once again started to whip through the education sector, as two leading figures have called for sweeping educational reform. Following on from chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon’s call for GCSEs to be scrapped, leading scientist and president of the Royal Society Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan has argued that A levels are too “narrow” and should be replaced with a more flexible education system.

Both call for a system which allows teenagers to study a broader range of academic and vocational subjects: an education system that will help to prepare them for the future world of work and provide businesses with the skills they desperately need.

I applaud this idea and truly believe that it’s time more people understood and acted upon the need for – and value of – broader and more flexible education options. However, realistically, red tape and politics mean full educational reform is unlikely to happen soon.


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If the system isn’t working, we need to take stock of the great options already available to young people – and make sure that these young people are prepared to take advantage of these choices.

Skills gaps are a clear barrier 

The UK is currently facing a significant shortfall of skilled people, which means employers are unable to access the talent they need to build efficient, productive businesses. According to research published last year by the City & Guilds Group and Emsi, nine in 10 employers already struggle to recruit the skilled staff they need.

We need training providers and colleges to work together with businesses and government, to develop a roadmap for skills development, which not only supports learners, but also matches the needs of employers. Put simply, our education system needs to be built with the objective of better serving our economy.

As these new calls for reform focus on the need for students to access broader educational experiences, we need to assess the current options available. Yes, A levels and GCSEs may be too narrow and place unnecessary pressure on young learners, not setting them up for the workplace – but they aren’t the only options available.

At City & Guilds Group, we’ve long been aware of the pressing need for a high-quality route into work that combines technical knowledge with work-based skills and experience for 14- to 19-year-olds, which led us to develop the TechBac in 2014 – well before T levels policy was implemented by government. And, of course, apprenticeships are another route integral to plugging skills gaps, offering an expanding range of opportunities for skills development.

Indeed, there already exist many vocational and technical education and training offerings, aside from A levels and GCSEs, that are better set up to meet the needs of employers. However, visibility of those options is too often masked.

Promoting technical education

As a society, we have an unhealthy prioritisation of the traditional educational routes; while these work well for many, they should not be put on a pedestal and certainly not seen as the only way to get a job, earn a good income or have a successful career.

It’s essential that we change that perception and ensure young people understand the full range of options ahead of them, which can pave a way into industries such as engineering, construction or hospitality, as well as law, accountancy or civil engineering. Whether that’s through GCSEs, A levels, the soon-to-be-implemented T levels or apprenticeships.

And it’s not just students who need to know about their choices; their families and schools need to be informed, too. Currently, many parents and teachers are still not up to date with the ongoing reforms to technical education in the UK. Many still look down on vocational routes, unaware that some of the UK’s most exciting, fast-growing industries can be accessed more easily via technical routes.

A level playing field

As a nation, we don’t yet give vocational education the same weighting as traditional routes, which we really need to do – after all, if we discourage young people from exploring alternatives to academia, it’s not just them that will suffer, but UK businesses, too.

Rather than pigeonholing young people, we need to promote a holistic education system that opens doors to students. It’s only by changing perceptions now that future reforms encompassing vocational learning – such as those suggested by Halfon or Ramakrishnan – will have any success further down the line.

However, measurement of success in schools is still a fundamental structural barrier to this change in attitude. Until education institutions are measured by metrics other than academic performance league tables, we won’t see any real improvement in perceptions towards vocational or technical qualifications.

The argument that our educational infrastructure needs a reboot is well justified. However, before we push for major reform, we need to take advantage of the tools we already have at our disposal and secure parity of esteem between academic and technical routes into employment. With the new T-level qualifications being phased in from 2020, this is the ideal time to do so. Only then can we truly assess the best way forward for the greater system.

Kirstie Donnelly is managing director at City & Guilds Group

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