Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Active Learning

The headmistress of Britain's best performing school predicts that in the future more of the brightest schoolgirls will favour employment over university when they turn 18.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Clarissa Farr, headmistress of St Paul's Girls' School in London, suggested that it is becoming "acceptable for bright students not to go to university" and that heading straight into employment could be a "more exciting and faster route to the top".

Her comments come at a time when more and more people are questioning the value for money of a university degree. With tuition fees of £9,000 a year, coupled with accommodation and other living costs, the average graduate will emerge from their education with up to £40,000 of debt.

Quite rightly students - and their parents - will want to ensure that university study will significantly enhance employment and long-term career prospects.

Cost however is clearly not the only driver for this shift in thinking amongst the upper echelons of Britain's private schooling, where annual fees are around £23,500 a year.
Slowly, but surely, a paradigm shift is emerging. Big name employers, frustrated with the well-publicised skills gap between education and employment, are recognising the value of nurturing raw talent and shaping the technical and soft skills that they require in their employees.

But if more young people are to enter employment at 18, including those from the best performing private schools, what should we be doing to prepare them?

What does this shift mean for A-levels, designed as an entry qualification for higher education rather than a training ground for employment?

Dare we believe that this shift could open the doors to a vocational education system that is already skilled in working with employers to shape career-focused learning programmes?

We are starting to see a gradual change in the perceptions of vocational education in international markets, and the same could be happening in the UK.
The shift is being led by large yet entrepreneurial companies such as Google, who are throwing down a challenge to schools to think more creatively about what young people need to learn.

These employers champion disruptive thinking and prize creativity. They don't want an educational system that equips people to conform but want to foster a culture of innovation, resilience and problem solving.

To realise the potential of this sea change may take a decade or more. And I don't believe it will reach all sectors. Government departments and big accountancy firms will, in my opinion, retain a preference for graduates from Russell Group universities. Other employers may take on new recruits at 18, training them up in the ways of the organisation before sponsoring them through a degree further down the line.

But if the further education sector is to seize the opportunities of the change, we must present a compelling case for the alternative. We need to prove the success of a vocational route for getting students into top jobs. The examples are already there but we need to shout about them and build on them. If we do we may begin to see the impact of the brightest choosing a vocational route not just at 18, but at 16 too.

Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Active Learning, an education group that includes Banbury and Bicester College, City of Oxford College and Reading College

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