Our education model is rated by everyone except us

Blog by Activate Learning Group Chief Executive Sally Dicketts.
Folllow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts

The academic year draws to a close amidst a backdrop of uncertainty over the future of further education.

In a recent speech to the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Skills Minister Nick Boles questioned whether the general further education model has a future at all. As the government seeks to reduce the national deficit, what Mr Boles referred to as the ‘unproductive parts of the further education sector’ will come under scrutiny.

Today’s budget will reveal how required savings of £900m to the BIS and DfE budgets will fall on FE.

Britain’s vocational education system is under-funded and under-valued and yet internationally it remains a highly prized commodity.

In the last few months I have travelled to Saudi Arabia, China and India. In each of these countries, the teams I have met are keen to learn from our expertise.

These markets are beginning to recognise the role of an education model which develops high level vocational skills and engages those who have not thrived in an academic setting.

They see the value of equipping people with the technical and soft skills required for the workplace and of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Vocational education in these countries is becoming an essential driver of economic growth.

If these countries are opening the floodgates to the opportunities that further education brings, we are slowly turning off the tap.

Up until this point the education system in China has been solely focused on getting people into the right university. The very start of a child’s schooling is focused on the five exams they will sit at 18 that determine the university they will attend. If you don’t get into the right university there are certain jobs you will never access.

Apart from the incredible pressure this system puts on young people, it serves to polarise educational routes and resulting career prospects.

Things are beginning to change and China is beginning to invest more funding and effort in its vocational colleges. In doing so teams are learning from UK colleges by working by employers to shape a relevant curriculum supported by industry-standard facilities.

Meanwhile, in the UK we are at risk of heading in the other direction.

As further education is slowly eroded we are focusing our efforts on GCSEs and A-levels, where a child’s ability to write an essay under exam conditions becomes the pinnacle of measuring pupil and teacher success.

We invest in higher education in order to develop higher level skills, but risk leaving a gap between school and university which around 50 per cent of our young people will fall through.

My belief is that we must stop using FE as the football kicked around in every funding cut game and begin to invest in a sector which is so highly valued in other markets.

Further education remediates. It provides opportunities for young people who have not thrived in the academic environment of school and provides adults with an opportunity to change careers. But it also has the capacity to drive the high level vocational skills that are required if the UK is to grow and retain a competitive edge.

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