Three Visions: the Post-16 Skills Plan

Tuesday 04-10-2016 - 13:10

At Zone Conferences 2016, each of our five Zones will have their own respective ‘key themes’. So far, we’ve thought about the world post-Brexit and student mental health. This week we hold a magnifying glass over the FE sector and think about three visions for post-16 skills.

Get in Go Far? If you want to get there I wouldn’t start here

The latest apprenticeship adverts tell a great story. Get in, go far. There are stories of apprentices in non-traditional roles, the woman engineer smashing stereotypes at work and the young black man choosing a finance apprenticeship over a degree. These are good stories and they need to be told. Great apprenticeships can be life changing, a way to earn a wage, learn and gain work experience.

As anyone who has done media studies will be able to explain, the adverts don’t tell the whole story. For many apprentices the reality is a complex system that is full of good intentions and a tangled web of incoherent policy.

Across the UK there are admirable targets to increase the number of apprenticeships (three million in England, 100,000 in Wales during the respective parliaments and 26,000 a year in Scotland). The story and the reality don’t stack up though, here’s some highlights of the twists and turns that an apprentice’s story takes.

Get in go far: How do you get in? Some providers are doing great work getting apprentices into local schools and telling pupils what it’s really like on an apprenticeship but unbiased careers advice remains patchy

Get in go far: How do you get on? The odds are financially stacked against apprentices and their families. The government stubbornly refuses to define the status of apprentices as in education so their parents lose Child Benefit and Tax Credits. Their reasoning is that the apprentice is paid a wage of at least £3.40 an hour (new rate from 1 October 2016).

Get in go far: How do you get out? That depends on what apprenticeship you are on. Employers are now developing apprenticeships that have no qualifications. How will this help apprentices move into their industry of choice?

We all love a good story, but Get In Go Far doesn’t show the whole picture.

Quality vocational education

Many of the people who make decisions about our education spent their time at school and university in an age before email and in institutions that haven’t changed much since Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole were teaching a generation of nurses in the Crimean war.

The world has changed, ideas in education have changed and the way we learn in vocational education needs to change too.

In 1997, before many of our Full Time Officer’s started school, Lorna Unwin described the state of vocational education like this: “If the state could be put on trial charged with the crime of consistent neglect of vocational education and training (VET), much in evidence could be called for the prosecution.”

If we take a look around many of our colleges and training providers the same criticism could be levelled today. For all the glossy advertising about apprenticeships making their parents proud quality vocational education is still not universal.

The bare minimum we should expect in our education is to learn to do the things our course guides say we’ll learn but the quality education we aspire to see might also include:

  • Having stimulating, safe and welcoming places that we learn to be active members of our communities
  • Understanding what we learning for. Learning how to apply our skills and experiences to the situations we find ourselves in
  • How we learn at work. What does on the job learning really mean, can we make it something more than repeating tasks until we get them right?
  • Who we learn with. Our friends live on our street, across town and across the world. Technology is linking communities together but can we use technology to substantially improve learning rather than being a way to deal with funding cuts delivered by austerity?

The excellent vocational education we are looking for isn’t just training for a job we can do today, it’s an education that can take us into tomorrow’s careers.

Work Experience the actually works

One of the proposals in the Post 16 Skills Plan is that work experience makes up a core component of all Level 3 vocational provision.

It’s hard to argue that getting real time industry experience during your course, or trying out what the workplace is like in a field you’re still exploring isn’t worthwhile, but unless the government seriously reconsiders its offer of support to colleges, this proposal is over before it’s even started.

Compulsory work experience is only a component of some courses, and it’s usually up to the discretion of the college as to whether or not it’s embedded in the programme.

Courses like Health and Social Care often have a set amount of hours a student needs to complete on placement such as in a care home, at a nursery or with an agency delivering key support, but often, the support offered to students to find these placements isn’t there and students are left to make their own arrangements.

For some, not being able to secure a placement means they can’t progress into the second year, or if they can progress, they have to make up the additional hours on top of what they’re expected to do in that year too.

There are some key issues learners have identified that are barriers to their work experience placements being an effective learning tool. Solving these issues would make work experience actually work:

  • Limited staff support to help students find a placement means staff providing this support are often overwhelmed by the volume of placements they need to deliver – leading to backlogs and students often having to sort their own placements out.
  • The learning outcomes and opportunities gained from a work experience placement are often not explained fully to students. Tutors also often don’t have the time to visit students on placement to undergo assessment and support students to reflect on what they’ve learnt.
  • There’s often no capacity for staff in colleges to build strong links with organisations and industries to deliver high value and meaningful placements - making it difficult to ensure that the learner is receiving a quality experience rather than being asked to make cups of tea.

If we really want work placements that are in the learners’ best interests, forming a coherent part of their education, then the government needs to think seriously about the scale and scope of what it’s asking its colleges to deliver for students.

Registration for Zone Conferences closes next Tuesday (11 October) at 5pm. All delegates will be twinned with delegates, where possible from the same union, unless a single room supplement is paid - more details on the registration page.


Education, Features, Zone Conferences

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