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Time for a Pre-16 Skills Plan?

Blog posted by: Andrew Gladstone-Heighton, Policy Leader, Wednesday 20 September 2017.

Just over a year ago, the government released its Post-16 Skills Plan. In the introduction of 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 EU 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? With attention looming on the implementation of the plan, on which parts of the future economy could be hinged post-Brexit, surely a more joined up approach would make sense? At the age of 16, it’s 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 reengage those pupils. We’re 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 they are 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 who 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”. Leading to the conclusion that the delayed approach to technical education may me having adverse effects pupils’ ability to join the work place and find sustainable employment.

Technical qualifications, such as V-certs, 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 approve a more limited number of these qualifications, using increasingly more stringent criteria. This makes it difficult for curriculum planning for schools, as well as the qualifications not being 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 already be sure to fail when there is an alternative out there for them. 

So let’s call on the Department for Education to look at the wider picture, and agree on a fixed (or at least medium-term) set of criteria for Technical Awards that allows for a joined-up curriculum that supports young people into careers that engage them. Let’s give those pupils the best chance, which in turn will give the best chance to the Post-16 Skills Plan, upon which so much hangs in the balance. Let’s introduce real and meaningful choices to pupils before we lose them to disheartenment after years of testing rather than equipping them with practical and transferrable skills for the future.


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