Seizing the opportunity of new technical qualifications

25th March 2016 at 00:00
They will offer greater choice – but only if young people, parents and teachers are properly informed

From September changes to curricula in schools and FE will mean that young people are able to study a range of new vocational and arts qualifications at key stages 4 and 5.

Students aged 14-16 across the country will, in theory, be able to choose to study subjects other than GCSEs at school – a level of change that has not been seen since the introduction of GCSEs in the late 1980s.

From 16, young people will now be able to study technical certificates (intermediate level 2 technical qualifications) or Tech levels (advanced level 3 technical qualifications on a par with A-levels). Both of these qualifications are recognised by employers and are perfect for young people who want to specialise in a particular industry. The Department for Education’s 2018 performance tables include these new qualifications alongside more traditional academic qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels.

Exciting and necessary change

I believe that these reforms will bring about really exciting and necessary change by providing greater choice for young people and a broader and more balanced curriculum. It’s important to note straightaway that the new qualifications won’t be lesser options for less gifted children – they will be every bit as rigorous as similar academic qualifications and teens will be able to accrue Ucas points if they are studying at level 3.

At the moment we have a one-size-fits-all system in place, which any educator will tell you simply doesn’t work for everyone. While some young people do really well with GCSEs and A-levels, others would thrive with the option of a vocational course. Some students already have a pretty clear idea of what they want to do, so a chance to experience their chosen field now and gain the skills and knowledge that employers look for can put them ahead when they hit the job market. The double benefit is that, as young people are accruing Ucas points at KS5, it doesn’t close the door to higher education.

Additionally, employers are telling us that the current educational system just isn’t preparing young people for the workplace. A recent piece of City & Guilds research (bit.ly/CityGuilds) found that half of employers felt education wasn’t meeting the needs of their business. With youth unemployment levels still standing at almost three times that of the wider adult population, it’s vitally important that education seeks to address this.

This is all great news, and on paper it sounds like a no-brainer. Loads of young people will be studying these new qualifications up and down the country come September, right? Well, not quite. As with apprenticeships, a huge amount of stigma is still attached to taking a vocational qualification. This PR problem needs to be addressed if we want to see millions of young people experiencing the benefit of a vocational course.

A recent survey by the Sutton Trust (bit.ly/SuttonTrust) found that 65 per cent of teachers wouldn’t recommend that a student with predicted grades that would allow them to go to university to pursue an apprenticeship. And while the Demos Commission on Apprenticeships last year found that 92 per cent of parents thought that apprenticeships were a good idea, less than a third (32 per cent) said that they would consider one for their own child (see box, above).

This is a significant problem, as both parents and teachers are incredibly influential in shaping young people’s career choices. City and Guilds carried out another piece of research in December 2015, surveying more than 3,000 14- to 17-year-olds about their career aspirations (bit.ly/CityGuilds2). More than two-thirds of respondents intended to go to university but economic modellers EMSI found that only one-third of the available jobs were predicted to be graduate jobs. With the average three-year degree course now costing £44,000 that’s a pretty sizable gamble for a young person to take.

With a scant amount of independent careers advice available, many students are making choices that will affect their futures without having all the facts to hand. And while both parents and teachers are doing what they think is best for young people, they don’t have all the information, either.

Anita Crosland is 14-19 senior education category manager at City and Guilds @Anitacrosland

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