Principal Thoughts – June

Posted on: 2017-06-19

Can the future of learning be vocational? Why the UK education system needs to change from the bottom up

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley explores the future of vocational learning and discusses how it can give today’s younger generation the best chance, help close the skills deficit and future-proof our economy.

There’s historically been a bias against vocational education in the UK. Apprenticeships are often viewed as second-class degrees, rather than an effective route to work experience and skills, qualifications and employment. A YouGov survey found only seven per cent of 18-24-year-olds considered apprenticeships right for them, compared with 68 per cent who rated higher education the best option.

However, this mindset needs to change. Firstly, young people should see it as an opportunity – and not be afraid – to be trained in careers that suit their natural skills and preferences. And, secondly, it impacts on society. Many of the skills needed to compete in today’s global market are technical skills that fall into the vocational arena. Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has recently acknowledged that the UK is now near the bottom of the international league table for technical education and states that the lack of skills is constantly cited by employers as a “major concern”.

Why is this happening?

There is a culture of inequality between vocational and academic education. In the past, vocational education was left to fend for itself, and a diverse collection of accreditations developed entirely separate from school education; they were designed to qualify for specific jobs and were often particular to individual employers – in essence, they became the route for those who had fallen off the academic ladder.

This situation has led to the current technical education system that is confusing for students, with around 20,000 courses provided by 160 different organisations – many of them of little value for individuals or employers, with no clear indicator of which course will give them the best chance of landing a job. In comparison, the Netherlands is rated one of the best countries for technical training provision. Every secondary school is built with an additional 650 square metres of non-academic training space, an investment of more than £1.5m per school.

Vocational learning just isn’t being promoted in our education system. Many of today’s teenagers have never considered a future in industries such as medical therapy, electrical engineering, computer support, manufacturing, social care and construction; even though there are numerous, diverse – and very well paid and secure – career opportunities on offer. A significant proportion of young people, especially girls, are put off STEM subjects because they are unclear about what careers they support.

More education is needed on vocational career paths in primary, secondary and further education sectors. Research shows that more than 35 per cent of career advisers think a career in construction is unattractive, while 82 per cent of teachers don’t believe they have the appropriate knowledge to advise pupils on this career path. While parents often view apprenticeships as an option for other people’s children. 

However, the Government is starting to make strides to address this situation and overhaul vocational education’s image problem, with initiatives such as the apprenticeship levy and an ambitious target of producing three million UK apprentices by 2020. And the latest development is a new ‘T-level’ system proposed for 2019, which would overhaul how technical education is taught and administered and aims to put the courses on an equal footing with academic qualifications.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills also called for the following in their ‘Growth Through People’ report: employers to take a lead in improving skills levels; more vocational pathways to work; more integration between the worlds of work and education; more apprenticeships; and work experience to become an integral part of education.

But what are the benefits of vocational learning?

Vocational learning can give the younger generation a head-start in their careers. They are often more flexible, accessible and cost-effective. Students can even earn while they learn, gaining valuable work experience and reducing student loan debt. Alternative educational institutions also tend to have lower fees than the standard £9k a year demanded by traditional universities.

Vocational learning can help improve commercial success. Continuously evaluating and developing the workforce can directly affect commercial success. It means staff have up-to-date and relevant skills – and businesses can increase their overall market knowledge, fulfil any new business opportunities, and easily keep abreast of the latest technological developments. Also, companies end up spending much less on up-skilling and retaining staff, compared to recruiting higher skilled candidates.

Vocational learning can help solve the skills gap. It ensures skilled talent continues to enter all areas of industry. It’s important for everyone – employers, educational establishments, governments and industry professionals – to be continually learning and keeping abreast of the latest developments, to close the skills deficit and future-proof the talent pipeline.

Vocational education really is the best of both worlds; it provides students with the opportunity to study accredited degree programmes at well-respected institutions – combined with cutting-edge industry knowledge, exposure to businesses, and networking opportunities with practising professionals. These graduates end up leaving education years ahead experience-wise – and enter the workforce able to make a difference in their work straight away. The future is bright – the future is vocational. 

At UCEM, we partner with businesses to manage their apprenticeship programme from recruitment and training to on-going support – at both level 3 (A-level equivalent) and level 6 (degree level). For more information about apprenticeship funding, click here, or get in touch with our apprenticeship team to find out how we can support your business.

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