Technical - College students get the royal seal of approval

20th December 2013 at 00:00
They pick up awards from Duke of York at Buckingham Palace

While members of the British Royal Family have some of the most recognisable faces in the world, most visitors to London have to be content with peering through the railings at Buckingham Palace.

But this month, the Queen's official residence in the capital played host to an event with a difference. More than 150 young people from two colleges in the Midlands were invited to the palace by the Duke of York to attend a ceremony for a new awards scheme.

The palace's ballroom usually hosts state banquets, but on this occasion it was filled with groups of teenagers, lining up to shake hands with the Duke and receive their Duke of York Award for Technical Education.

The awards, the Duke told TES, were founded to recognise the achievements of young people attending university technical colleges (UTCs), the new brand of 14-19 colleges specialising in vocational education and technical training.

And although England's education secretary Michael Gove is reported to have had reservations about the early impact of the scheme, the Duke - a renowned campaigner for science and technology, and a former trade envoy for the UK - was happy to give his backing.

Academic qualifications were no longer that relevant to business, he told TES. And there was no longer any stigma attached to vocational training in the workplace, he said, fittingly for someone brought up to learn the ways of the family business.

"Those that get a skill first tend to have a considerable business advantage over those who have gone to university...That is just by dint of experience, knowledge and pay, and they never lose that," he said.

"Businesses are saying to me, the educational qualifications are to a large extent somewhat irrelevant; it's (about) your attitude, your ability to communicate, those employability skills that are key to the business."

The inaugural awards were given to students from the first two UTCs: Staffordshire's JCB Academy and the Black Country UTC in Walsall. The awards are based on the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme, with bronze and silver awards for GCSE-level achievements, and gold for A-level equivalent standards.

While UTCs' close ties to employers and focus on real-world skills seem far removed from the Duke's own education at prestigious Scottish boarding school Gordonstoun ("I couldn't understand why I was learning what I was learning," he said), he added that project-based learning gave students a crucial leg-up into employment.

"It makes the young people learn in a way that outstrips everybody else, because they are learning (skills themselves), not being taught," he said.

Whereas politicians have in recent years struggled to raise the status of vocational training to match academic qualifications, the Duke insisted that the nature of the 21st-century workplace necessitated a cultural shift.

"The 20th century was largely encapsulated with a philo-sophy that there was either an intellectual path or a skills path," he said. "The 21st century has already...moved beyond that; it is the intellectual combination with a skill that is going to be important."

The UK needed to increase its focus on skills, alongside the academic route, to ensure that students are ready for work, the Duke added.

"You've got to have both of them, but to some extent the education system in this country, the regulatory process, drives an almost pure education agenda. (There's) nothing wrong with that," he said. "The problem is, I talk to too many young people who say they are not prepared to go into the workplace."

JCB Academy principal Jim Wade said: "To come here, get presented with their award and shake the Duke's hand - they'll remember that for the rest of their lives."

But the proudest man in the palace was former education secretary Lord Baker, the figurehead of the UTC movement and champion of vocational education. "It's a great day for parity of esteem," he said.

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