‘We are all at fault’ for our obsession with university

22nd June 2018 at 00:00
Sir Ian Wood says there is still work to be done to promote vocational education, writes Henry Hepburn

Four years after his landmark report heralded a new era for vocational education in schools, Sir Ian Wood faced questions from MSPs last week about how much progress has been made. Here, we look at his concerns.

What was the 2014 report called?

Education Working For All! Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce final report. However, Wood revealed that he wanted to call it “The Neglected 50 Per Cent”, in reference to the many young people he feels have been let down in school by a traditionally academic education system. He was “told that was not the right thing to do”.

How does he view schools’ priorities?

Wood feels there is “a culture of university being the be-all and end-all, with anything that is not university tending to get secondary consideration”.

He wants to see change so that “we no longer appraise [schools] on the traditional measures of higher passes or academic passes”. He added: “There is no point in a kid staying on at school unless he or she has something to aim for.”

Who does he blame for the overemphasis on university?

Everyone. “Parents are at fault, teachers are at fault and some schools are at fault – frankly, we are all at fault,” Wood said.

Does he see this bias towards graduate careers in wider society?

Yes. He wants more “prestige” attached to apprenticeships and trades. “We need doctors and lawyers but also people to look at the plumbing in our houses,” he said.

Are there logistical reasons that make it harder for schools to point pupils towards non-university alternatives?

Jennifer Craw believes so. She works for Opportunity North East, which is funded by Wood’s charity, the Wood Foundation, to find ways of strengthening the economy of North East Scotland. Craw, who was quizzed at the same Education and Skills Committee meeting as Wood last week, compared the “simplicity” of the Ucas university admissions process with “how much more fragmented any education pathway outside universities can seem”. She said that “the focus on [Ucas] in the school environment is very difficult to replicate for the college, further education and modern apprenticeships pathways”.

What progress has Wood seen on the recommendations in his report?

There has been “significant progress on most” recommendations, Wood said, and he highlighted a better relationship between schools and colleges. He has found enthusiasm in schools for the idea of some pupils spending a day or two at college as part of their week, and said: “I do not think that there are insurmountable structural issues that would prevent us from getting a much better combination of school and college education”. Similarly, he wants schools and business to work more closely together, but he gives that element only a “60 per cent pass mark”.

What did he say about careers advice?

That it should be a normal part of teachers’ jobs, not just left to careers advice specialists, and that it is “every bit as important as the other things they do as a teacher”. He said that many young people receive no careers advice and he has seen “huge variation” in quality, adding: “Some of it clearly fell short”.

Careers advice should involve practical experience of work, he said, with industry experts coming to school to talk with students about their futures. “Sitting in front of a computer isn’t enough at all, frankly,” he added – although this seems to be the experience of many pupils, particularly those perceived as more able and less in need of support.

And work experience for pupils?

Labour MSP Mary Fee talked of pupils whose work experience comprised following someone around for two days and doing very little.

Wood said this is “wasting everyone’s time” and “reflects badly on the school and on the company that provided work experience”. He has heard some “horrific stories” involving employers and stresses that “we fell out with employers more than we fell out with the schools”. Wood advocates a system that guarantees three work-experience placements in different companies and environments, and said: “I do not think that we can give young people too much work experience.”


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