Why we need Classics to be a vocation, too

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
The government's focus on `employability' and vocational courses risks losing the transferable skills that academic study can teach

Blackpool Sixth Form College's Peter Wright is in no doubt that the programme he teaches plays a key role in improving his students' life chances and employment prospects.

It helps to develop skills "that are always going to be important in any society or successful economy", he says. His message chimes with the government's focus on arming young people with the skills and qualifications they need to succeed in the world of work.

But Wright doesn't teach apprenticeship students. He doesn't even teach a vocational subject. He is a teacher of A-level classical civilisation.

In many colleges around the country, the government's focus on ensuring that learners are ready for work - centred on the drive to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 - has come at the expense of traditional academic provision.

With budgets increasingly stretched, even colleges with a strong pedigree in academic subjects have been forced to turn their attention to apprenticeships and vocational courses.

According to the Association of Colleges (AoC), the number of enrolments to A-level courses at colleges has fallen almost 15 per cent in five years, from 424,900 in 2011-12 to 362,040 in 2014-15. Among adult learners the drop has been even steeper: A-level enrolments in this group are down 36 per cent over the same period, from 12,460 to 7,930.

"We are going into an era of far more technical courses rather than academic courses," says David Corke, the AoC's director of education and skills policy.

"More and more colleges are focusing on outcome-based courses and the government is doing lots of work to take students into positive destinations. Many providers are much more focused on the routes into work."

Roman revolution

But A-levels are more important than ever, according to Wright, who was recognised for his innovative approach in the classroom when he was named teacher of the year at the TES FE Awards in February.

Traditional subjects such as Classics develop skills like "communication, criticism, research, evaluation and the ability to link complex ideas [and] concepts", he says.

And it's actually "quite easy" to get students to engage with the worlds of ancient Rome and Greece, he says. "There are so many links to politics, literature, art, culture and so on that students can make the subject work for their other areas of study. It adds to the depth of their learning experience and really improves their skill set."

Given the shift towards technical and vocational training, sixth-form colleges - with their proud reputation for academic excellence - have found the past few years particularly tough.

Some 169 schools have opened sixth forms since 2010, increasing the competition between neighbouring institutions. And according to James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association, the 93 sixth-form colleges in England have "experienced deeper cuts to their budgets than any other group of institutions".

A survey by the association shows that 95 per cent of sixth-form colleges cut staffing levels between 2011 and 2014 and two-thirds dropped courses. More than a fifth cut courses in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, seen as critical for the UK economy, and 38 per cent closed courses in modern languages.

`Impoverished curriculum'

At Sixth Form College Farnborough, in Hampshire, one of the country's largest sixth-form colleges, most of the 3,600 students take A-levels and go on to higher education.

In the past, most of them did more than three subjects, says principal Simon Jarvis. "All did four, many did five and some did six, as well as extracurricular activities. We timetabled and staffed up for this and our results were never better."

But funding cuts mean this is no longer the case. "The reforms of the past few years meant that when we were funded to do three A-levels and a bit, we had further to fall," he says.

The college has been forced to adapt by offering more vocational qualifications to entice learners. And to save money elsewhere, departing members of staff have not been replaced and the senior management team has been shrunk.

"Any fat that might have been in the system has been boiled out," the principal says.

The college has also cut the number of A-level subjects on offer, among them electronics, languages for beginners and religious studies. "The curriculum is being reduced and I think it is becoming impoverished," Jarvis adds.

And there could be worse to come: colleges are still waiting to hear how an additional pound;900 million in cuts will be made from the budgets of the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis).

Being able to adapt to government priorities and the demands of employers will be essential over the coming years if colleges are to make ends meet. And the government leaves no doubt as to what these priorities will be.

"We want colleges to provide the skills working people need to start a successful career," a Bis spokesperson says. "It is up to colleges to decide which courses they offer."

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