What is education for?
Reading the papers in late August, you would be forgiven for thinking the whole purpose of education is to pass exams – more specifically, GCSEs and A levels.
Those who pass go to university. Those who fail are conveniently forgotten.
Teachers know that education is about more than just exams. It is about helping young people ask the right questions, find information for themselves, use their knowledge and experience to solve problems, take sound decisions, and work with others.
Education should also help young people find out what they are good at and what they enjoy doing. But this isn’t easy when exams become the be-all and end-all.
Opportunities to try new things or develop new skills are pushed to one side in the race to achieve grades A* to C.
Sadly, we also value some abilities more highly than others. Academic achievement comes top, followed by artistic and sporting prowess. The ability to make things, tackle practical tasks with ease, and work with our hands – these are a long way down the pecking order.
It wasn’t always like this. The industrial revolution started in Britain. Jethro Tull devised a more efficient way to plant crops, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and George Stephenson harnessed steam to create the first modern railways. Their achievements were rightly recognised and celebrated.
Other countries – Germany in particular – realised that the fastest way to catch up was to invest in high-quality technical and vocational education. It is a pattern we see repeated today as new economic powers emerge around the world. Korea and China have built hugely successful manufacturing sectors by investing in technical knowledge and skills. It is no surprise that South Korea won more medals than any other country in last year’s Worldskills competition.
By comparison, our education system is skewed towards a particular style of learning often labelled “academic”. This leads to the idea that “vocational” learning is second-best, and should be considered only by people who struggle with the academic pathway.
This is a false dichotomy. As other countries and our own history prove, there are many paths to success.
The Edge Foundation was set up to challenge the status quo in English education. We do this partly by backing pioneers such as the Edge Hotel School. Based in Colchester, the Edge Hotel School is the first of its kind in the UK: degree students combine their studies with work in a commercial luxury hotel and restaurant, closely supervised by leading professionals.
Edge has also been a leading supporter of University Technical Colleges, which are aiming to transform 14 to 18 education by combining intensive technical learning with a broad and balanced curriculum.
Edge has now set out Six Steps for change (read coverage of the official launch of the campaign here). We want an education and training system which helps young people choose the paths that support their talents and ambitions, and which helps create the knowledge and skills needed by the UK economy.
With these aims in mind, we want politicians, practitioners and the public to:
Recognise that there are many talents and paths to success.
Ensure that “learning by doing” is valued equally with academic learning.
Provide technical, practical and vocational learning as an integral and valued part of every young person’s education and as a recognised route to success.
From the age of 14, give young people a choice of learning experiences and pathways based on their motivation, talents and career aspirations.
Ensure that the technical, practical and vocational education and qualifications offered in schools, further and higher education are high quality and recognised by employers.
Ensure all young people, whatever their different abilities and interests, leave the system with confidence, ambition and the skills to succeed and the skills the economy needs.
From a school perspective, the most pressing need is to include practical, hands-on learning for all young people, not just some. This matters because it affects the choices people make later on. Someone who has only studied academic subjects may never find out how much they enjoy more practical forms of learning, or how good they are at tasks which engage the hands as well as the mind.
Research by the University of Exeter found that academically able young people who are offered practical learning enjoy it, do well in it and understand that it will be useful in adult life. However, most are steered away from practical subjects as they move through secondary school because many teachers – and some parents – encourage them to concentrate on academic learning to the exclusion of all else.
We believe the solution is to introduce four-year programmes of study for 14 to 18-year-olds, enabling them to combine academic and hands-on subjects in different proportions according to their motivation, talents and aspirations.
And because the key to all successful education is outstanding teaching, we need to build experience of practical teaching methods into initial teacher training and CPD programmes. We also need to encourage people to become teachers after careers in other sectors, especially if they plan to teach technical and vocational subjects.
Obviously, young people, parents and teachers need to be confident that all pathways are of a consistently high quality. Employers have a vital role to play here: they need to be involved in the design and delivery of qualifications of all types and levels. Linked with this, we need clear pathways for people who choose vocational options after leaving school, so they can see ways to progress to higher skills through apprenticeships, further education and university.
We need to provide comprehensive information, advice and guidance for young people and their parents – ideally from the age of 11, to help guide decisions at 14-plus. They need to know that with a generation of baby-boomers coming up to retirement, there will be huge demand for technical and practical skills. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills says that in the years to 2020, there may be two million entirely new jobs – but as many as 11 million vacancies will arise as people leave employment.
If all Six Steps are accepted and implemented, the result will be a step-change in the confidence, achievement and abilities of young people.
Taken together, they will ensure all young people, whatever their different abilities and interests, really do leave the system with confidence, ambition and the skills to succeed – and the skills the economy needs.
Jan Hodges is CEO of the Edge Foundation. To get involved with the debate and share your views, visit www.edge.co.uk