'How can students be prepared for post-16 vocational options when the curriculum in school gives them little practical experience?'

23rd August 2017 at 17:18
Education ministers are accused of leaving young people at serious risk because the current focus on exam grades crowds out employability skills

Last week we learned that Learndirect, the biggest provider of apprenticeships and adult training in the UK (with almost 23,000 apprentices), received a highly critical Ofsted report. We also learned that the publication of the report was delayed by several months as Learndirect went to the courts to prevent publication.

Ofsted had found that around a third of Learndirect apprentices do not receive their entitlement to off-the-job training. The training they do receive, largely on the job, is judged by Ofsted to be inadequate, failing to develop the apprentices’ skills, and to improve their literacy and numeracy.

Learndirect, which was privatised by David Cameron, dabbled in Formula One sponsorship – a case of taking your eye off the ball if ever there was one. This case is yet another testament to the fact that privatising public services is a very risky business.

Meanwhile, FE colleges that have the potential to massively contribute to and improve the quality of apprenticeships are starved of cash and subject to endless reorganisations.

This week Michael Mercieca, chief executive of Young Enterprise, an organisation which runs programmes in schools for pupils of all ages from primary to sixth form to teach them about the world of work and business, accused education ministers of leaving young people at serious risk because the current focus on exam grades crowds out employability skills and a focus on the world of work from the school curriculum.

Mercieca commented: “Employability and enterprise education are no longer on the national curriculum. They used to be, but that was scrapped in 2013. It was very sad and we protested strongly, but we were ignored. Yet these skills are good for younger people, the economy and the country. How come education became so focused on GCSEs and A levels? Younger people deserve better.”

Mercieca’s views are supported by the employers’ organisation, the CBI, which found that employers rated attitude and aptitude for work as more important than academic achievement when recruiting school and college leavers.

Lack of specialist skills and knowledge

While the government fiddles, employers burn. The UKCES 2015 Employer Skills Survey found that employers in most kinds of occupation identified a lack of specialist skills or knowledge amongst candidates. In skilled trades, 33 per cent of candidates exhibited a lack of manual dexterity, and 32 per cent of applicants lacked skills for reading and understanding instructions, guidelines, manuals or reports. In professional roles, 34 per cent lacked advanced or specialist IT skills.

However, the most frequently mentioned area where job applicants fell short was "people and personal skills" with 47 per cent having inadequate time management skills. Applicants for sales and customer services posts lacked sales and customer handling skills. And 31 per cent of applicants for management roles did not have the necessary persuading and influencing skills.

I want to issue a note of caution here. Employers’ organisations have a long and dishonourable record of decrying the state of schools and complaining that school leavers are not "work-ready". What they mean by this, usually, is that school leavers should enter the workplace as the finished article and need little or no work-related training and development.

It is, regrettably, the case that employers have repeatedly failed to step up to the plate when it comes to providing good vocational training and development. The amount of workplace training offered to UK employees has halved since 1997. This lamentable record is one of the main reasons Nick Boles, the then skills minister, made the bold decision to press ahead with an employer levy for training. Persuasion, he said, had clearly not worked and compulsion was now necessary to get employers training their workforce properly.

Employers cannot do it by themselves. Children need to start learning about the world of work in their early years, because their notions of "appropriate" work for men and women appear to be set very early on. More informed and mature understanding about the potential and variety of vocational opportunities need to be developed as young people progress throughout compulsory schooling, particularly if the UK is to break the occupational gender divide.

Schools get blamed

Government ministers, however, appear to believe that a divide can happily exist between an overly academic pre-16 school curriculum and an informed choice of academic and vocational routes post-16. Schools get blamed for failing to promote apprenticeships when subjects like design and technology, which are closely related to the manual skills which are so desperately needed by employers, are studied by ever-fewer students.

The question must be asked: how can young people know enough about, and be prepared for, post-16 vocational choices and routes when the curriculum they follow in school gives them little information and practical experience?

An answer to this question becomes more urgent as the government’s overly academic and obsessive focus on reading and writing about academic subjects is banishing the experience of learning by doing, making and creating from England’s primary and secondary school curriculum.

Post-Brexit, the importance of high-quality vocational training, both pre- and post-compulsory schooling, will come relentlessly to the fore. Perhaps our current crop of education ministers need to do some hard thinking if they are not to be judged inadequate – as their immediate predecessors are increasingly being judged – when it comes to preparing young people for the world of work in the 21st century. This is what the success or otherwise of UK PLC will be based upon. 

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

For more columns by Mary, visit her back catalogue.

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