An eight-point plan for 14 to 19 education

Written by: Olly Newton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A policy paper published during the summer by Edge sets out the charity’s case for a coherent, unified and holistic phase of education to prepare 14 to 19-year-olds for their future careers. Author Olly Newton explains

At the beginning of July, Edge published its latest policy report which makes the case for a radical rethinking of our education system.

Our plan for 14 to 19 education proposes eight measures (see below) to ensure all young people benefit from a coherent, unified and holistic education, while gaining work-ready skills and having a clear view of the breadth of opportunities open to them.

Top of the shopping list is probably the most straightforward change – to broaden the narrow EBacc. By combining the options for a language and humanity, it’s easy to create slots for a creative and a technical subject. Offer computer science as one of the science options and already the suite of subjects becomes more balanced and offers the opportunity of a skills mix more suited to the 21st century rather than the 1900s.

Shortly after Edge’s report was released, the government published a document of its own – the long awaited response to its consultation on the EBacc. The reduction in the target percentage of students taking the EBacc – from 90 to 75 per cent – and the extension of the deadline for meeting it had an air of kicking the can down the road. Seemingly acknowledging a shortage of language teachers as a factor in the diminution of ambition, the announcement acknowledged a logistical reality, rather than a reappraisal of the rationale behind the policy.

Already the number of young people taking non-EBacc subjects has dropped by 11 per cent, yet responding to a question in the House in July, Lord Nash, the under-secretary of state for the school system, assured colleagues that: “The decline in the subjects to which the noble earl refers (arts subjects) has been more than made up for in the substantial increase in the number of pupils taking IT and the now almost 70,000 pupils taking computing.”

Clearly the noble Lord had not paid attention in his maths class! Taking the government’s own figures for GCSE exam entries, there is a significant decline in the number of arts subjects taken, a drop of 26,800 from 2016, and over the same period a drop of 7,550 in computing and ICT overall (although computing on its own did increase).

The following week the Brit School, based in Croydon, south London, celebrated its 25th anniversary. Inspired by the 1980s film Fame about a performing arts school in New York, it is Britain’s only free arts and technology school, training students in the performing arts, film, fashion and design technology fields.

It was founded by Edge’s chair, then secretary of state for education, Kenneth Baker, and supported by Beatles producer George Martin and businessman Sir Richard Branson. Mrs Thatcher may have dismissed the project as a school “for out of work actors”, but the Brit School boasts an impressive list of alumni, notably Adele, Amy Winehouse and the star of this summer’s blockbuster, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tom Holland.

Not only do the creative industries contribute more than £84 billon a year to the UK economy, but these are subjects which encourage team-work and collaboration, self-discipline and resilience, communication and creativity; skills and aptitudes which are critical to a global digital economy and highly valued by employers. Evidence suggests that students who study arts subjects perform better in their academic subjects.

Certainly preparing young people for work is a key theme of Edge’s publication. In his foreword to the report, Lord Baker says of education: “It must ensure that young people emerge with what they need for a fulfilling career, or rather a number of fulfilling careers, and that the UK economy nurtures the skilled and flexible labour it needs to power economic growth.”

Britain has one of the highest rates of graduate underemployment in the world and yet the skills gap continues to widen.

The UK Employer Perspectives Survey 2016 found that employers rate relevant work experience as either critical (24 per cent) or significant (41 per cent) factors in recruitment, above maths and English GCSEs and academic or vocational qualifications, yet schools are given scant resources to develop career and employer interventions for students. Lord Baker adds: “Thousands of young people are being let down by the education system every year because they do not receive the advice, guidance and high-quality training they need to plan their career, engage with employers and prepare for work.”

The lack of employer engagement in schools and failure to prepare young people for the world of work, was borne out by analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by the Learning and Work Institute, which was published in August.

While the government contends that the number of young people who are NEET (not in employment, education or training) is going down, the figures for the long-term unemployed are less rosy. The percentage who were NEET for a year or more rose from 9.8 per cent to 11.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the first quarter of last year.

Of course the big education media story in August – cue images of anxious looking teenagers opening envelopes – was the publication of A level and GCSE results. There were plenty of news stories of students reporting high levels of stress on account of exam pressures and fears of “failure”. While A level results can be pivotal in determining a young person’s next steps, GCSEs have assumed a more critical function since the introduction of mandatory English and maths resits. Despite the participation age being extended to 18, there is an expectation that everyone should be ready for the same exam at the same age.

For the young people who fail to negotiate the cliff edge at 16, it can mean a demoralising cycle which rarely results in meeting the system’s expectations. Only 12 per cent of students who do not achieve an A* to C grade in English or maths by 16, go on to do so at 19.

As 18-year-old Georgina says: “I’ve failed my maths GCSE four times. It’s horrible because you feel like you’re stupid. You feel like there’s something wrong with you.”
A 14 to 19 phase of education with a shift to a “stage not age” approach, would offer all young people the opportunity to achieve their best, when they’re ready.

This not only removes stigma for those students who might take longer to reach GCSE success, but would also allow those who have found their talent to progress as far and as fast as they can.

Edge’s eight-point programme, outlined in our report (see panel), sets an agenda for a sea-change in British education to create a unified and coherent 14 to 19 phase that allows young people to fulfil their potential and prepare them for work; a broad and balanced curriculum designed for the 21st century, making school work relevant to the world of work through project-based learning and integrated employer engagement, Apprenticeships focused on young people, teachers given the time and freedom to deliver and develop as professionals, and measuring success by young people’s destinations, not just their grades.

Our Plan for 14 to 19 Education: Edge’s eight-point programme

  1. Creating a broad, balanced and relevant 14 to 19 curriculum that culminates in a holistic baccalaureate combining academic, technical and creative qualifications, an extended project and personal development.
  2. Making the curriculum relevant by putting learning into context through cross-curricular project-based learning with employer involvement.
  3. Removing the cliff edge at age 16, allowing young people to sit their GCSEs based on stage rather than age.
  4. Focusing Apprenticeships on young people who are joining the labour market. Growing Higher and Degree Apprenticeships. Providing high-quality pre-Apprenticeship opportunities and Young Apprenticeships from 14.
  5. Integrating careers guidance and employer engagement throughout. Including a properly funded intensive preparation year at age 13 and a programme of planned employer interventions across the 14 to 19 phase.
  6. Giving teachers more support and freedom, with more time to plan and collaborate, more training in new teaching approaches and opportunities to work directly with employers, including through externships.
  7. Supporting more collaboration between institutions by establishing an entitlement for every pupil to access a broad range of pathways, and reducing incentives on schools to keep hold of pupils.
  8. Creating an accountability system that focuses on outcomes by placing a detailed set of destination measures at the centre of performance tables at key stages 4 and 5.
  • Olly Newton is director of policy and research at Edge, a charity that champions high-quality technical and vocational education. He is the author of Edge’s report, Our Plan for 14 to 19 Education.

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