How the 'broken' education system casts students adrift

Too many teenagers are switched off by secondary education - getting them back on track can be impossible, writes Catherine Sezen

our broken education system leaves young people behind

“The education system is broken.” That’s what my 15-year-old son told me when I asked him how his English literature mock had gone last week. I was a bit bemused. I knew that Macbeth and Jekyll and Hyde were a bit of a struggle for him, but this seemed a little extreme.

Upon further investigation it turned out that a few of the students in the exam hall had put their heads on the desk and slept for nearly two hours –  though I doubt they were all sleeping, more likely feeling lost and wondering what happens next. “They‘ve switched off, they're not interested. School needs to be more relevant,” my son told me. Not quite out of the mouths of babes, but I was taken by his unprompted insight into the school experience for some, if not many.

That is not to say that schools don't nurture and support – they do, but the current school curriculum they have to deliver is so academic. My school experience nearly 40 years ago was very academic, knowledge- and fact-heavy, and we seem to have gone full circle. If, for whatever reason, an EBacc diet doesn’t interest you or meet your needs and strengths, then school curriculum can be a challenge. Which, when the government's flagship post-16 education policy focuses on technical education and skills, seems a bit disjointed to say the least.


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How can colleges engage with young people post-16 when they have switched-off from education by Year 10? That isn't to say that technical education shouldn't be seen as a progression option for all young people, but we do know that nearly 50 per cent of students at general further education colleges are on level 2 and below study programmes which most likely means they haven't achieved a handful of GCSEs at grade 4 or above, including English and maths.

There is a huge number of more practical options and careers that might engage, interest and meet the learning preferences of a wide range of students: design, engineering, catering, animal care, performing arts – the list goes on. 

So how do we light a spark for those young people who feel lost?

One way of making education more relevant is to relate it to real-world occupations and careers – this is something colleges do so well. I first walked into a college to teach English as a foreign language and immediately I was bowled over by the opportunities for young (and not so young) people to do courses that would give them the skills and knowledge to become a farmer, a product designer, a beautician – all in one organisation. 

A few years later, I had responsibility for Increased Flexibility Programmes (IFP): funded one-day-a-week courses for a number of key stage 4 students, at college. Schools reported improved attendance and engagement the other four days a week. Young people enjoyed experiencing success. At the end of the course, the students achieved a level 1, or in some cases, a level 2 qualification in their chosen field and progressed on to level 2 or 3 programmes post-16 with the technical basics under their belts, already settled into college life and expectations. 

I pinned a letter to the office wall from a parent who said that doing the IFP in engineering had helped her son understand why maths was important and had incentivised him to work harder towards passing his maths GCSE. Today, many colleges find it difficult to access the pastoral information they need to appropriately support students. But actually, the extended transition period of IFP helped in this too – students were already known by the time they started a post-16 course. I know many colleges would jump at the opportunity to offer funded IFP again, but even funding a short taster programme or giving students all access through school assemblies would help to promote the life-changing opportunities of FE.

But it isn't just young people we need to influence; it is parents and schools too. They have to see the value of technical options. School teachers are huge influencers, but how much training and experience of technical and vocational education do they have? The Gatsby benchmarks and Careers & Enterprise Company initiatives are beginning to drive change, but colleges are constantly telling us how challenging it is to be able to access all KS4 students in their area. There certainly isn't a consistent approach. Perhaps the new education inspection framework will help with its focus within the personal development judgement on preparing students for their future success.

Do international models hold the answer? In Switzerland, careers guidance is embedded within the curriculum and young people are individually supported to make appropriate progression choices. Two-thirds of students opt for a technical or vocational route.

To mend what is 'broken', we need a more inclusive and consistent approach to careers education, information, advice and guidance. We need to ensure every young person has the opportunity to find out about all the progression and employment options available to them, and we need a curriculum that engages all and gives every young person a taste of success.

Catherine Sezen is senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges

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