Among the myriad of changes facing our education system, one key legislative change which is having significant impact on secondary schools seems to have been largely ignored among the mainstream media.
Yet while it may not have had the column inches of issues like the introduction of free schools or changes to GCSEs, the raising of the participation age is a transformation which presents schools and teachers with a series of opportunities and challenges that we have not had to face for more than 40 years.
Done effectively, the increase in compulsory education, vocational study or in-work training for 16 to 18-year-olds will provide our young people with better life chances and a greater likelihood of them acquiring the non-academic skills modern employers are looking for. Done poorly, with a lack of support, strategy and funding, there is a risk of disenchantment and frustration, making secondary school teaching more challenging than ever.
Of course, staying on in education isn’t for every 16-year-old and the key will be to provide enough interesting and high-quality options within school as well as plenty of support for those pupils who wish to continue their learning in other environments, such as on Apprenticeship schemes.
Personally, I believe that extending the period of learning for students will have a positive impact overall and I am confident that the changes we are making at Hemsworth Arts and Community College are offering our students every opportunity to benefit from the additional period of learning in a way that suits them.
To meet the differing needs, ambitions and talents of our students at post-16 level we have been working hard over the last few years to ensure we offer a wide enough range of options, from a variety of A levels to high-quality vocational training delivered in conjunction with industry specialists.
To prepare for the raising of the participation age, we have been extending our vocational provision at Levels 1, 2 and 3 at post-16 and were extremely fortunate in receiving a grant from government to establish a £3.25 million purpose-built centre for delivering vocational training, which we run with two other local schools.
The aim of the state of the art centre is to improve provision for vocational training across south east Wakefield and it is allowing us to introduce new courses, including hospitality and catering from September 2013.
As well as the superb facilities, a key feature of the centre is the fact that it has been built away from our main school site. While obviously having an entirely new building a few miles down the road is not an option for many schools, the need to somehow physically separate post-16 learning from key stage 3 and 4 is crucial.
To increase take-up of courses within secondary school and maintain interest among students, it is essential that pupils do not feel the changes mean they are simply extending school for another two years.
Purpose-built, separate facilities create the sense that, after GCSEs, students are moving on to something new, something with different aims and objectives.
However, having good facilities is only the start and we have recognised that offering high-quality vocational courses appropriate for today’s labour market means bringing in external experts.
Training specialists working alongside school staff to deliver training can offer pupils much more than the alternative option of having members of teaching staff dedicated to teaching pupils vocational courses.
For instance, we work very closely with Dimensions, an external provider of hair and beauty training, who have proved invaluable in terms of their expertise, knowledge and support. They are up-to-date with industry changes and trends in a way that we would find very difficult to achieve if we delivered courses independently.
The students undertaking hair and beauty training also benefit by having an “as true to real-life” training experience as possible. For instance, students wear uniforms and they operate the training rooms as a real salon, with secondary skills like customer service and sales playing a fundamental part. Students also get opportunities to put their skills into action through work experience in real salons which puts them at a clear advantage when looking for work.
We can also provide clear progression routes for our students. We currently offer Level 1 and 2 NVQ Hairdressing, Level 1 NVQ Beauty and joint Hair and Beauty and Hairdressing but many of our students decide to progress their training further with Dimensions and eventually move on to full Apprenticeships.
We also work with them to deliver courses at key stage 4 so the continuity throughout school is excellent. This combination of a commitment to high-quality vocational training and first-rate delivery means that many of our students have moved successfully into careers within hair and beauty. I’m confident that this trend will continue and grow as the raising of the participation age is fully implemented.
Bringing in external providers is not always simple though and some are better than others. A key element to the success of our working relationship between staff at the college and Dimensions is that both parties are focused on putting the learner at the centre and making sure that developments suit our learners first and foremost. When asking staff to work so closely with outside experts, a shared understanding is crucial for making the relationship work.
Another challenge faced when using training providers is managing the administration and reviewing progress. To overcome this, we have invested in appointing a key member of staff within college to liaise with all our training providers. This has ensured that regular dialogue and review has taken place and improved efficiency.
There is no doubt that successfully extending the period of learning through to 18 is not without its challenges but I am convinced the changes are a positive move. With the right strategic thinking, sufficient funding and the use of additional support via external providers when necessary, our students can benefit greatly.
CAPTION: Education choices: A Hemsworth student takes her learning into the workplace
Pamela Massett is headteacher at Hemsworth Arts and Community College, a specialist arts and community college based in Hemsworth, West Yorkshire.