There is no shortage of speculation about the future of our education system. This is particularly true for the further education sector, which has been through a turbulent period of late.
Once all the waves of the government’s area-based reviews are complete, it is likely that we will have a much smaller, or at least a more concentrated, vocational provision.
At the same time we await the full details of the first skills white paper to be published in a decade, due out later this month. This is likely to outline around up to 20 new technical professional routes into employment, in a bid to improve the clarity and quality of the vocational offer.
To truly answer questions about what the future holds, I believe that we must first revisit the purpose of education.
My proposition is that education is designed to create able individuals who are curious, challenging and open to learning throughout their lives. These individuals should be equipped to work effectively as part of a team and make a valuable contribution to their organisations and wider society.
If we are to realise this aim, we need to understand how people learn. We must recognise how the brain works, how and why people are motivated to learn and the emotional roadblocks that can derail them.
From these foundations we can create the right environment for effective learning.
This leads me to maintain that two types of post-16 education are as important as they have ever been.
The first is vocational. Vocational learners do not wish to engage in academic study for the sake of studying itself. These learners need to see the relevance and purpose of new skills and knowledge through clear connections with their employment context. Vocational learners value employer relationships and practical approaches – the majority of them attend further education colleges.
The second is academic. Academic learners enjoy the rigour and process of learning. They are passionate about their subjects and enjoy acquiring new knowledge without too much concern for its eventual application. These learners tend to follow an A-level route within their local school.
In this context, neither route should be valued above the other, but should simply offer the choice required to ensure that every individual succeeds in realising their potential.
If we accept this – and can convince our government, employers, parents and young people of it - our focus for vocational education then needs to be on raising standards so that our offering becomes truly world class.
By 2022, I believe that vocational further education will need to offer the following in order to be successful:
- Employer endorsed and co-created curricula that meets the needs of industry and develops relevant skills, behaviours and attitudes in its learners
- A rigorous framework to recognise and measure professional behaviours, so that learners develop the soft as well as the technical skills demanded by employers
- Clear career pathways that are used at the point of entry and throughout the learner’s journey, to ensure that they are clear about their future options and the steps required to attain their goals
- Learning programmes that are time bound, based on individuals’ needs rather than arbitrary funding methodologies
- A technology rich learning environment, including greater use of virtual reality, to enable learning anytime, anyplace via any device
- Effective transition support that enables learners to move from education into employment seamlessly
- A stronger research base that seeks to understand the critical elements behind high performing institutions and share this with others
- A vocationally relevant means of delivering English and maths education for those who have failed to achieve a grade C by age 16. This should follow a new teaching, learning and assessment methodology without compromising standards
- A greater focus on destinations, alongside value added and achievement, as true indicators of success
I believe in the capacity of the vocational education sector to achieve this, and am pleased to say that I can see the green shoots of progress already appearing.
Sally Dicketts is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning