Why job-specific courses do students a disservice

Why specialise in Monopoly if you struggle with tiddlywinks? Education must be broad to be useful, says David Hughes

Is FE training too many specialists and not enough generalists, asks David Hughes, of the Association of Colleges

Maybe it’s because I am, at heart, a geographer. "Jack of all trades, master of none" has always felt like a comfortable epithet for me. It could be a complete lack of application and signs of indolence, of course, but I like to think that knowing a little about a lot and not being too specialist is a strength. My wife thinks I am just shallow, but it’s probably best not to explore that too fully.

The point is that having completed a geography degree, I was probably not trained for anything in particular, but I felt ready for anything and confident that I could adapt and learn. It’s broadly true of most, if not all, graduates that the specifics of the degree are often the least important part of the educational experience (with notable exceptions – medicine, dentistry, engineering and so on). Recruiters accept a degree broadly as a single, significant message of competence, roundness and capability.


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Narrow specialisms in technical education

Contrast that with vocational/technical education where we seem to have gone down the path of ever-narrower specialisms. I call it the snakes and ladders and tiddlywinks syndrome. Imagine a degree approach to children’s games. It would support students to understand game theory, the history of games, an overview of who plays them, how they have evolved and their role in child development. You get the idea. This would result in students able to approach any new game with confidence.

They’d be able to understand the concept of any game, learn the specific rules and tactics and take on most children and win. Great help for parents, uncles, aunts and godparents alike. They’d also have learned a wide range of skills and abilities – analysis, problem-solving, strategy and so on – which they’d be able to apply in all sorts of contexts.

The vocational/technical qualification approach would be different. We’d ask a group of experts in each game - snakes and ladders, tiddlywinks, Cluedo, draughts etc - to describe in detail the competencies needed to play the game. From that we would design a robust and rigorous assessment, a mixture of written questions with perhaps some practical tests. Several qualifications would be approved, probably at different levels of competency. Colleges and schools would draw up the curriculum needed to support students to pass in each game and send out the marketing materials to attract new students.

Pick your game

We’d expect students to decide which game they wanted to qualify in, and off they would go. A level 2 in tiddlywinks or a level 3 in Cluedo, perhaps even a level 4 in chess. It matters not, the first time they encountered a child they would be able to confidently play "their" game. And probably win. Sadly, they might then struggle, should the child choose a different game, one they were not trained in. But no worries, they could always return to college to be trained in that as well, starting again in a specialism. As long as they had the money to pay for it and the time to do it.

You get the picture. A more modern version might be qualifications in Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Halo rather than a degree in gaming. The former is short-term, narrow and limits opportunities; the latter is broader and prepares the student for adapting over the long term as new games are launched.

Before you wonder whether this is simply the silly season gone mad, consider the choices we ask of young people at age 16. For the majority of 16-year-olds with good passes in GCSEs (including English and maths), there are four paths:

  • A levels
  • A levels with applied general qualifications (AGQs include BTECs, Tech Levels)
  • A single AGQ
  • An apprenticeship

Why transferable value matters

The first two allow some breadth (not as much as they should in my view, but that’s a different article) and open up all sorts of opportunities to progress into a wide range of jobs or subjects at higher level. The student's choice of career can be effectively postponed for at least two years, and more if they then go on to a degree, which postpones that choice for a further three years.

For those who want to study more work-focused subjects, they are expected to make a career choice at 16 and deviating from it is not as easy. The currency of vocational qualifications in a different vocation is not nearly as strong as a degree or A levels, in part because there is less respect for the transferable and core skills that the students acquire.

This issue is even more acute with some of the new apprenticeship standards. Two stand out for me – the level 2 "dual fuel smart meter installer" and the level 3 "powered pedestrian door installer and service engineer". Both train people for real jobs that need to be done and  involve risks, so I am pleased that there is proper training aligned to them. But I worry that these fall short on the holistic skills and development an apprenticeship should provide in helping a novice start their career. Neither of these seem to pass that test – both train people for a job and that is, of course, important and necessary, but do not provide the same transferable value as A levels.

As we look to the future and the overhaul of technical education with the introduction of T levels, we have the chance to offer a broader experience for young people with built-in flexibility. The new qualifications must be focused on the core and transferable skills that will help across a 50-year career that will no doubt see future generations change jobs and vocations several times in their lives. If technical and vocational courses narrow choice, then we will put off lots of young people who might flourish on a more work-focused, adaptable course, and that would be a shame.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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