Education frustration

Posted on 18 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

Tomorrow this year’s A Level results will be released. Thousands of hopefuls await, believing that their performance will represent a make or break point in career ambitions. How true is this perception? TM’s Jane Gray discusses.

For the vast majority of young people progressing through the UKs education system continuing with education beyond the age of sixteen means one thing. A Levels, with the prospect of a university career to follow. The fact that there are a whole host of other qualification options, including apprenticeships, that will equip students with tangible skills, career prospects and not incur the staggering debts that hang like millstones around the necks of graduates, still passes many by.

This blinkered attitude towards education and qualification options is a product target driven school’s league tables and a national curriculum which, as Jim Wade, principle of JCBs successful technical academy says “is based on the grammar school curriculum of the last century”.

Wade is not alone in holding this view. Individuals from education and industry have been vocal in recent years in condemning mainstream education for falling out of touch with the needs of the twenty-first century job market and ill preparing pupils for the challenges they will face outside the classroom. The Edge Foundation, an independent body dedicated to raising the quality of and regard for vocational qualifications and chaired by Lord Baker, has committed itself to pushing for educational reform and has undertaken high profile projects such as the ‘We are the people we’ve been waiting for’ film to try and broadcast it’s message that a blend of vocational and academic approaches aimed towards tangible, relevant career goals, will better serve young people and the national economy alike.

To give mainstream education it’s due, many individual schools and colleges are trying hard to absorb this message and open up alternative education styles and qualification options to students. The trouble is that league-table ratings focus on mainstream academic results and mean such schools are likely to end up criticised if there is a fall G.C.S.E and A level grades as a consequence of broader choice.

In addition, obsession with mainstream qualification results undermines the ability of pioneering academy style institutions to establish reputations as credible and successful educational institutions. This was proven after the release of this year’s GCSE results when broadsheet papers lambasted the positive performance of academy schools saying that their results were not truly representative because they relied on vocational rather than ‘academic’ subjects.

This abasement counters government intentions to fast track the establishment of academy schools in the next five years. Jim Wade is hopeful that these schools will extend the potential, already being pursued at The JCB Academy, to promote the status of trade professions and education guided by employers with real job market requirements. “Plans exist for twelve to twenty University Technical Academies to be opened in the next two to five years. Aston University is the sponsor of the first UTC opening in September 2012 and specialising in Engineering”. The UTC programme is being supported by the Edge Foundation.

The outmoded views of those who persist in viewing vocational qualifications as second rate options, for those who fail to attain university places or who are not ‘bright’, is particularly frustrating to individuals like Anne Watson, MD of engineering qualifications body EAL. Watson says vocational qualifications are still viewed as “the poor younger brother of academia when in reality they are anything but. Vocational training is a real alternative for school leavers giving them not only a practical and work ready area of study but a salary to go along with it rather than student debt. An apprenticeship can open doors to a long and rewarding career, and should be seen as the first step to a career in a skilled industry, not as a second best to university.”

Watson’s frustration has particular pertinence this year in the light of admissions from government and universities that, due to an 11% surge in applications it is possible that as many as 200,000 young people will find themselves rejected from the university admissions process as institutions run out of room on their courses.

It is likely that many of these disappointed young people have great talent and there is now an opportunity for industry and trade professions to attract them into stable, progressive qualifications routes, proving that the concept of a university based academic elite is fundamentally flawed. Education and discovery with real meaning exist outside the mainstream as well as within it and will challenge and reward those who chose to pursue an alternative route.