Lessons from technical education in Denmark

by Sally Dicketts

Last term I travelled to Copenhagen with the Gatsby Foundation and two other college principals to look at how Denmark does vocational education and see what lessons we can learn from their experience. Colleges in Denmark tend to specialise – I visited an engineering college for instance. In Denmark, as in the UK, there is a general prejudice in favour of academic education – at 16 plus only 20% choose further education but at 19 plus, almost half of all students are in vocational education and adults continue to pursue vocational routes throughout their careers. I visited a IT training facility where the students following a technical IT programme ranged from 19 to 48 years old.

The Danish system is based on four year programmes leading to a license to practice; there are no fees and learners receive a small stipend. The standard and extent of adult education is very good. On the downside, the Danish system is heavily regulated: the social partners – business, unions, local and national government – determine what programmes colleges can provide and there is less scope for entrepreneurship and choice.

The Copenhagen experience is interesting in view of the three major developments to hit our sector – the government’s industrial strategy, the review of 18 plus provision and the forthcoming T-levels.

I recently discussed the future of post-18 education with other college principals in a debate chaired by Philip Augar, chair of the independent panel that is advising the government. The review offers lots of exciting possibilities for us on higher education. However, most HE providers have seen applicant numbers drop by between 20 and 30% this year. The market is tightening and becoming more competitive which means many of the newer universities are increasingly trying to enter our market and competing directly with our colleges. This will be a great challenge to us to make clear the distinctiveness of our higher education provision, built on our Learning Philosophy and our understanding of learners’ attributes.

Top tips for exam success

Got your exams coming up soon? If you are feeling nervous or stressed, help is at hand! We’ve got some top tips to help you on your route to success.

1 Keep revision sessions short and sweet
Want to boost your concentration? Research shows that 20-30 minute spells of revision, mixed with short, frequent breaks, work best.

2 Exercise your way to success
Don’t be tempted to save time by missing a trip to the gym or a sports game with your friends. Physical activity increases your heart rate, which makes the blood circulate faster. This gets more oxygen to your brain, increasing productivity and reducing stress.

3 A room of your own
While revising, you need a quiet space, where you can avoid distractions for a few hours. If you are at home, keep the TV and music off (or play relaxing tunes at a minimum volume). Revising in a coffee shop is not a good idea as you may get distracted.

4 The early bird catches the worm
Keen to give yourself a headstart on work for the day? Then set up your alarm clock to start revising early in the morning – this will help you do all the work you’ve planned for the day.

5 Spice up your revision
Drawing colourful learning maps will help you to memorise facts. Colourful notes are easier to memorise than plain black and white ones. Give it a go!

6 Make notes
The best way to memorise information is by making notes over and over again. At least three sets of the same notes in a run up to the exams will help you memorise the required information.

7 Practice makes perfect
Learning more about the exam format and the type of questions asked can be very helpful. Ask your teacher for some past papers (or Google them) to help you practice.

8. With a little help from your friends (or family)
Ask people around you to test you and give you feedback. Why not give your revision notes to your mum and ask her to test you?

9. Reward yourself
Finding the right balance between study and leisure will help improve your marks. Go to a cinema with friends after a productive day of revision or treat yourself to some chocolate.

10 Think positive
Remember to keep things into perspective. Plenty of people did well in life without getting an A* in every single exam. Work hard but take the pressure off yourself.

Supporting your son or daughter on the road to exam success

Sixteen year old Adele Tumilty completed her work experience with Activate Learning. In this guest post, Adele gives us her views on how parents can support young people during the exam season.

If your son or daughter is sitting an exam any time soon, they may be feeling nervous, stressed or even angry. These emotions, although difficult to deal with, are understandable.

If they have used their time well to prepare, they are likely to get good grades. But what can you do to support them?

You probably know that as a parent or carer you have a key role in your child’s success – helping keep things in perspective, remaining positive and encouraging good study, nutrition and exercise habits.

Parents or carers want to help but sometimes it can be tricky to support young people during the exam period. With that in mind, here’s a handy list of practical tips, prepared for parents by parents:

  • Give your son or daughter access to a quiet space where they can work by themselves
  • Encourage them to start revising early to ensure they have enough time. You could offer to work with them to test their knowledge in an informal way
  • Help your son or daughter to understand the importance of hard work and revision, but also help them keep the importance of results in perspective
  • Promote sport and exercise as a healthy habit to relieve stress. For example, going for a brisk walk or playing football with some friends can help boost your son or daughter’s wellbeing
  • Let them know that you are there for them to talk to, but don’t pressure them into it.
  • Help young people explore the different options available to them. You could offer to accompany them to an Open Event or Taster Event at our colleges, or encourage them to have a chat with our impartial Careers Advice team. Learn more about their chosen career so you can help them with the choices ahead. You could also talk to them about friends or family who have develop a fulfilling career with a range of different qualifications and grades

Exams season can be a tough time, but if your son or daughter remains focused and perseveres with their learning, and with your added support, their chances of success will be greater than anticipated.

Your views matter

Activate Careers provides impartial information, advice and guidance services, to help learners and potential learners make informed decisions about their future.

We are part of Activate Learning, and also provide services to schools, colleges and other organisations beyond the group.

Young studentsWe are always looking to improve college life for our learners, their parents/ carers and the wider community.

We are keen to hear from parents/ carers on your views about the careers advice your child has received. This short survey will take less than five minutes to complete. It will help us shape our careers advice provision and continue making a difference to the lives of young people.

If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment, email Activatecareersteam@activatelearning.ac.uk

Thanks for your co-operation.

What is the future for post-16 education?


Blog by Sally Dicketts, Group Chief Executive, Activate Learning
Follow me on twitter @sallydicketts

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.

English and maths – whose failure is it anyway?

English and maths pic

Blog by Sally Dicketts, Group Chief Executive, Activate Learning
Follow me on twitter @sallydicketts

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw dealt a well-documented body blow to the further education sector last month when he suggested 16 to 19-year-olds would be better off in schools.

When quizzed on his comments to the Education Select Committee, he cited students’ poor performance in GCSE English and maths retakes as a key indicator of the sector’s failings.

Young people who don’t do well in these subjects at 16, rarely improve two years later, he complained.

If schools have failed to prepare these young people for GCSE success in 11 years, why are colleges being criticised for failing to reverse their fortunes in just two?

Last summer the think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report suggesting schools pay a levy to colleges where pupils joined having failed to secure good English and maths grades. The levy would help to ease colleges’ growing budget pressures over what could be seen as “passing the buck” of under-performance.

While many are still reeling from Sir Michael’s comments on further education, engaging in the blame game isn’t really going to help anyone.

No one doubts that English and maths are vital life and employability skills, but for me the question is whether GCSEs are the right indicator of success at all.

If a young person has struggled with English and maths at school, simply asking them to repeat the same exercise for another two years is only likely to reinforce failure.

Our emotions are the biggest barrier to effective learning and our emotional roadblocks are immediately raised when we are presented with a situation we have failed in before.

To break a habit we need to do things differently. We have seen a clear difference in our colleges where English and maths is embedded in the vocational curriculum. A student in hospitality and catering may struggle to see the relevance of writing an essay about their summer holiday, but can appreciate the need to present a clear ingredients list and explain a menu’s nutritional value.

This approach serves to demonstrate the value and impact of English in a vocational context. Students see the relevance and immediately feel motivated to put in the effort required to achieve.

While I absolutely disagree with Sir Michael’s comments about further education, what I hope it provokes is a further debate about how we teach and measure English and maths.

We need to stop being lazy in the way that we make judgements about student attainment, and instead understand the literacy and numeracy skills required for success in employment and life.

Autumn statement response

Sally Dicketts, Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning

Follow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts

The Chancellor has today announced that funding for further education colleges will be protected in cash terms.

This comes as a huge relief for the sector, which was braced for further cuts to the adult skills budget and funding for 16-19 year olds.

At the same time the Chancellor has announced that 19 year olds will be able to access further education loans. This will enable this age group to access training that will make a real impact on their future career and earning potential.

As always, the devil will be in the detail, but on the face of today’s announcement it appears that the campaigning done by colleges up and down the country has paid off.

The situation for many further education colleges is already extremely tough, with funding having reduced by 22 per cent over the last five years. Over the same period funding for schools and universities has grown.

Colleges provide a vital service to the local community, developing the skilled workforce required to meet employment needs and drive growth.

We need the government to recognise the value of this incredibly resourceful sector, and today’s announcement provides some signs that this is beginning.

Making the most of Open Events

Open Event parents picAutumn. The season of fallen leaves, Halloween, nights drawing in and counting the sleeps till Christmas.

With the festive break around the corner, planning your son or daughter’s education may not feel like a priority right now. But trust me, September 2016 will be here before you know it. From one parent to another, time flies when you are busy. Whatever they aspire to be, researching their options and making an informed decision can make all the difference, helping to turn these into a reality.

An Open Event is an opportunity for you to find out more about the colleges that your son or daughter may be interested in attending. The format varies from college to college, but typically includes a chance to speak to staff and current students, tour the facilities and ask questions.

Continue reading “Making the most of Open Events”

Going local – can we unlock the promises of devolution?


Blog by Sally Dicketts, Group Chief Executive, Activate Learning
Follow me on twitter @sallydicketts


The government’s productivity plan, published in July, set out a vision to extend the scope of localism in the further education sector.

Following pilots in the north of England, the plan proposed that more regional authorities would take on powers to shape their local skills agenda.

This could lead to more targeted basic skills provision together with professional and technical programmes tailored to local needs, it said.

Good further education colleges are powerhouses of economic development. By working with local authorities and employer bodies they are perfectly placed to bridge skills gaps and drive local economic growth.

In theory then, the more power that is handed to local bodies who understand the local skills and employment needs, the better.

My question is that in a time of austerity there is very little left to localise.

Continue reading “Going local – can we unlock the promises of devolution?”

Next steps after Results Day

It’s not easy being a parent – arguably the most important job in the world, and it comes with no instructions manual!

If your son or daughter is getting their GCSE or A-levels results this summer, you’ll be keen to support them as best as you can. This means you may find yourself having important conversations about their future.

We know opening the envelope with their results can be an anxious moment for many young people, with their future career aspirations dependant on their grades. We also know that on occasion their results may not be what they expected.

At Activate Learning, we support every young person to find an exciting career pathway in an industry that they’ll love.

If you want to help your child continue their career pathway, whatever their results, good careers advice and guidance is key. Why not come along to our free advice events this summer, to get dedicated careers advice, find out about sources of potential financial support and more.

The sessions are taking place at Banbury, Oxford and Reading, on:

• Thursday 13 August, 12-4pm
• Thursday 20 August, 10am-6pm
• Friday 21 August, 10am-4pm

Can’t make any of these dates? Why not come and see us later this month? We are open Monday to Friday, and will be open until later on Tuesdays and Thursdays until late September.