Technical education: Why wait until 16?

Written by: Lucy Thompson | Published:
Why is it that vocational education is seen as an alternative for those who as not academic (read ...

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The government’s Post-16 Skills Plan seeks to boost the status of technical education, but why wait until 16 asks Lucy Thompson

Just over a year ago, the government released its Post-16 Skills Plan. In the introduction to the plan, the then skills minister, Nick Boles wrote: “Reforming the skills system is one of the most important challenges we face as a country. Getting it right is crucial to our future prosperity, and to the life chances of millions of people”.

This statement now rings truer than ever as we look towards a future outside of the European Union and the potential skills shortages that it may bring with it.

However, the plan also sets out their ambition “that every young person, after an excellent grounding in the core academic subjects and a broad and balanced curriculum to age 16, is presented with two choices: the academic or the technical option”. My counter to this would be: Why the focus on academia pre-16?

Attention is fixed on the implementation of the skills plan, not least because parts of the future economy could be hinged on the success of this plan post-Brexit. So surely a more joined up approach would make sense?

At the age of 16, it is highly likely that a pupil who is disengaged with academia is also disengaged with education entirely. Having never been introduced to a viable alternative until it is arguably too late, schools and learning providers face an uphill struggle to re-engage those pupils. We are doing a possible disservice to those pupils to whom a fully academic curriculum may not be suitable – this being apparent long before the age of 16.

Many high-quality technical options currently exist for pre-16 learners, aligned to but not duplicating GCSE provision, and providing an occupational grounding in areas from music technology to business and enterprise.

More important still, technical education provides the introduction for life and work, as often it is linked with tangible and plausible career paths beyond the classroom.

In the paper, Overlooked and Left Behind, the Select Committee on Social Mobility found that the transition from school to work needs to be improved and this is made more difficult if not addressed early on.

Nacro, a crime reduction charity which contributed to the paper, said that: “Failure to address vocational education needs in mainstream schools either pre-16 or during post-16 career planning demotivates individuals, reduces confidence and self-esteem and therefore makes the transition to work and further education and training difficult.”

This leads to the conclusion that the delayed approach to technical education may be having adverse effects on some pupils’ ability to find sustainable employment.

Many technical qualifications are designed with the intention that they support pupils with rounded technical skills needed for a range of professions. However, due to the disjointed nature of technical education reform, the criteria these qualifications need to meet is not directly aligned with the Post-16 Skills Plan, and it seems that the Department for Education (DfE) has yet to realise this.

The attitudes towards technical education or alternative qualifications are entrenched. Poorly understood or overlooked by employers, we also see that each year the DfE approves a more limited number of these qualifications, using increasingly more stringent criteria. This makes it difficult for curriculum planning in schools. It also means that the qualifications are not comparable year-on-year.

This is another disservice to the pupils who are lumbered with traditional academic “fail-safes” chosen by time-strapped schools due to their automatic approval on performance tables. The sad fact is they could be on the road to failure when there is an alternative out there for them.

So let’s call on the DfE to look at the wider picture, and agree on a fixed (or at least medium-term) set of criteria for technical awards to allow for a joined-up curriculum that can support young people into careers which engage them.

Let’s give those pupils the best chance, which in turn will give the Post-16 Skills Plan, upon which so much hangs, the best chance of succeeding. Let’s introduce real and meaningful choices for pupils. Before we lose them to disheartenment and disengagement, let’s equip them with practical and transferable skills for the future.

  • Lucy Thompson is schools product manager with NCFE, a national awarding organisation.

Further information

Post-16 Skills Plan, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, July 2016:

Why is it that vocational education is seen as an alternative for those who as not academic (read bright) or those who are disengaged. Some of the most vocational careers (doctors, dentists, vets, engineers) are academically demanding and require bright and engaged learners. Until we stop this perverse snobbish attitude we will never attract high quality people in to 'vocational' education routes.
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