What we need is a skills curriculum

Is there a hole at the heart of the skills strategy? There is no lack of innovation by colleges and elsewhere. But what holds these developments together and ensures that vocational learners are on coherent programmes that allow them to progress?

Who can forget the central injunction of Success for All - "teaching and learning at the heart of all we do"? Yet we seem to have leapt straight into accreditation and delivery without making sure we have a clear and common framework for learning. Everyone knows what is learned in schools: see the national curriculum.

Perhaps vocational education needs a similar framework. A clear understanding of what is on offer - shared by students, teachers, employers, parents and the wider world - would certainly be a new experience. As the learning and skills sector steps up to the centre of the strategic stage and the purpose and public value of further education is investigated, is it time for our own curriculum?

As our involvement with 14-16 learners grows, the national curriculum for schools is something we are coming to know better, sometimes to rue. But in colleges we are generally much more familiar with the national literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages core curricula. These also set out an entitlement for learners and clarify the skills needed to meet national standards and the understanding and knowledge that underpin those skills.

This framework has allowed many teachers to identify and meet individual needs, and to achieve national standards that are both well-structured and relevant to each learner.

These national curricula provide the foundation for the extensive work around initial and diagnostic assessment, tailored learning materials and national qualifications that make up the Skills for Life learning infrastructure.

They have helped the development of new professional qualifications in a hugely under-invested area of teaching, and enabled a new professional dialogue.

Teachers now have a common framework within which they can share and contest ideas. Is it too simple to suggest that a national skills curriculum would give a similar boost to the skills strategy?

Our education system is now so tightly controlled from the centre, that the idea of a national skills curriculum is entirely consistent with the way we do things.

In one important way, the idea of a national skills curriculum might be seen as swimming against the tide. Learning and skills is rightly becoming much more influenced by employers. We have become even more alert to particular employer needs, more flexible and responsive in delivery and keen to see the qualification and funding changes that will enable us to go further.

In that case, doesn't the idea of a national skills curriculum pull in exactly the other direction and put a brake on employer-based innovation?

The recent National Skills Academy prospectus is a case in point. Despite the expectations wrapped up in the title, the criteria to be met by any prospective academy were extremely open. The prospectus was explicitly non-prescriptive and clear that there could be no one-size-fits-all model.

On the other hand, we need to resist the idea that employer-led learning means handing all decisions over to employers.

First, we still have some way to go in convincing employers as a whole about the business case for learning. Neither investment in training nor patterns of employee recruitment and reward - especially at the lower levels of skill - suggest they are convinced.

Second, the employer bodies charged with leading curriculum change are still largely government-funded. They have yet to establish a strong, independent employer voice.

Third, employers tend, understandably, to train to a particular set of local and immediate needs. Employer-based training can leave learners short of the breadth of learning needed by flexible and future-ready practitioners.

Fourth, and most importantly, those employer voices that are strong and independent are very clear that employers do not want to be saddled with those responsibilities that they see as rightly resting on the shoulders of education providers.

A national skills curriculum would offer an agreed framework which would teach the skills that employers and employees need - including generic skills - and would offer a structure within which employer-led innovation could bloom.

We all know that clarity of purpose encourages inventive and inspired practice. Lewisham college is proud of its long record of educational adventures, but we know that creativity flourishes when goals and values are explicit and agreed.

If we are looking for radical change in our skills offer - and we are - then agreeing a national learning entitlement and standards is no bad start.

Ruth Silver is principal of Lewisham college, south London

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