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A truly informed choice has to consider all that is on offer

Young people need to find out about alternative academic provision, not just vocational pathways open to them, writes Bill Watkin

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Young people need to find out about alternative academic provision, not just vocational pathways open to them, writes Bill Watkin

When the Technical and Vocational Education Bill was working its way through parliament two years ago, Lord Baker identified that the government’s big push for a greater take-up of technical education pathways was more likely to succeed if post 16 education and training providers could access pupils before they make their choices at 16. He proposed that schools should be required by law to provide opportunities for colleges and training providers to attend school information evenings and activities and talk about apprenticeships and technical education.

In this way, students could make an informed choice about the different pathways available. And, sure enough, the "Baker Clause" was added as an amendment to the bill and is now enshrined in law. At the moment, only 10 per cent of 16 year olds choose a technical qualification at Level 3, while 83 per cent chose A levels and Applied General qualifications. If the government is going to deliver a more balanced workforce with a wider range of skills, there must be a significant swing in the choices young people make. The Baker Clause makes sense.

Well-rehearsed arguments

Or does it? Previously, schools were already expected to let other providers come in and talk to their students. Whether about other sixth form opportunities, or apprenticeships, or vocational training. Schools were expected to let them in, but they didn’t always do so. For a variety of well-rehearsed arguments, schools have been keen to hold onto their year 11 students and maintain or even grow their sixth form provision.

Other providers are too often seen as competitors and advice and guidance opportunities have often been limited at best. Hence the need for legislation. We will learn later if behaviours change, or whether the imperative to secure student numbers – and therefore revenue funding, because, let’s face it, students are increasingly seen as important funding units in these austere times – will continue to dictate practice on the ground.

And the focus of the Baker Clause is limited. It says that “every school must ensure that there is an opportunity for a range of education and training providers to access all pupils in years 8 to 13 for the purpose of informing them about approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships.” But what about other academic pathways? Young people also need to find out about the much broader curriculum offer, the specialist expertise, and the university campus culture of sixth form colleges before they can make a truly informed choice.

Unclear guidance

And the government’s own statutory guidance is unclear. Do schools have a duty to let only technical and apprenticeship providers in? Or does the requirement extend to academic pathways too? In its recently-updated statutory careers guidance, governors are advised of the requirement for “a broader approach to ensuring that young people are aware of the full range of academic and technical routes available to them at each transition point.”

Launching the careers strategy, skills minister Anne Milton said this week “I want every young person, whatever their background, to have a good understanding of both the academic and technical routes that can lead to future success in a rewarding career or job.”

So, how should we interpret the new guidance for the 16 to 19 study programmes? How will 16 year-olds be equipped to know about the different pathways available? How will we ensure that the best interests of young people are prioritised? And how will we address the attitudes summed up in this letter from a school’s chair of governors to a highly successful and well-respected local (competitor) college?

Work proactively

“We collaborate with a number of colleges who are able to offer technical and vocational qualifications. We work proactively with our students to ensure that they are on the right courses at key stage 4 and  5 whether that is with us or one of our colleges that offer the practical, vocational, technical courses that we are unable to offer to our students. We ensure that our students are aware of the range of apprenticeships available to them…Thank you for your offer of sending your colleagues to our school and to speak with our students, but for the reasons given above it is an offer that we will politely and with all due respect decline.”

It is absolutely right, in the face of Brexit, and changes to the global economy, that technical education should be given a boost, However, this should be as well as, not at the cost of, academic education – the government’s Industrial Strategy relies on a supply pipeline of people with A levels and degrees to be the scientists, doctors and business leaders of the future. And it is absolutely right that there should be a variety of sixth form providers – schools for those young people who want to stay where they are and who can study the subjects they want; and colleges for those who are ready to move on and who want the widest possible choice of subjects.

Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association 

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