What is the future for post-16 education?

Future

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.

Will the post-16 education review ‘fix the foundations’?

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

Foundations

Last week the government released the first details of its national review of post-16 education.

The 10-page report sets out a plan for “fewer, more resilient and efficient providers” which could include new Institutes of Technology and National Colleges providing training in industry specialisms.

The proposals stem the Government’s productivity plan – Fixing the Foundations – which aims to create a more prosperous and productive Britain.

While the detail on such sweeping reforms is scant at this early stage, we know that the vision will be achieved via a national programme of area-based reviews, starting in September.

Area-based reviews are not new to the sector, but they haven’t before been driven through with such an imperative for colleges to collaborate and merge.

Merger is part of our history at Activate Learning, where three colleges are now part of one group with centralised support services.

However, in the current climate I would question whether merger is always the best route for colleges needing to improve effectiveness and financial stability. Continue reading “Will the post-16 education review ‘fix the foundations’?”

If ‘top girls’ opt for jobs over degrees, what can schools do to prepare them?

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

girls school blog pic

The headmistress of one of Britain’s best-performing schools predicts that in 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.

Continue reading “If ‘top girls’ opt for jobs over degrees, what can schools do to prepare them?”

If FE colleges are so dangerous, why send the most vulnerable?

A version of the following blog, by Activate Learning Group Chief Executive Sally Dicketts, appeared in TES on 12 June.

Folllow Sally on twitter @salldicketts

Further education has an image problem. That statement will come as no surprise to anyone working in the sector.

While many have no understanding of it at all, others perceive it to be a risky option.

We are used to responding to parents’ concerns about how their child will fare – leaving the relative safety of school for a semi-urban college campus where their son or daughter will face greater freedoms, follow a more flexible timetable and potentially mix with a more diverse student body.

Continue reading “If FE colleges are so dangerous, why send the most vulnerable?”

Should we worry about increased anxiety?

By Sally Dicketts, Chief Executive of Activate Learning

Follow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts

The anxiety levels of teenagers are apparently on the rise.

Recent research suggests that young girls in particular are showing more signs of emotional distress.

Anxiety

Research by University College London and the Anna Freud Centre compared the mental health of more than 1,600 11 to 13-year old boys and girls in 2009 and 2014. The results found the number of girls at risk of emotional problems had increased sharply, from 13 to 20 per cent within five years. Meanwhile the level of other mental health and behavioural problems remained fairly static.

So what’s going on behind the statistics?

Although our levels of empathy decrease during adolescence, young girls are still more likely than boys to become attuned to feelings of distress in others.  They may not yet however have the capacity and skills to give support without being adversely affected themselves.

Those commenting on the research have suggested that the increasing pressure on girls to perform academically, coupled with anxiety over body image amplified by social media, could be behind the rise.

It begs the question as to whether today’s young people face more pressures than their parents’ generation did, or whether the culture in which they operate is heightening levels of stress.

As Eleanor Doughty wrote in The Telegraph online, many of the things that occupy teenage minds – exams, relationships, future ambitions – are unchanged. Social media has had a major impact on these way thoughts and feelings are shared, but that can be helpful as much as it can induce feelings of stress.

I am inclined to agree, and I don’t think there is yet sufficient research into the effects of social media to lay blame at its doors. I do however believe that children are growing up in busier homes where the growth in digital technologies makes it harder to compete for attention. We all want to be heard but we are losing the art of listening, and if you don’t feel listened to you can soon feel isolated. It is a point explored by Nancy Kline in her book, ‘Time to Think’, and an issue that educators should take notice of. We need to help young people develop good listening skills to support their social interactions and build their resilience.

I also believe that young people face a more fiercely competitive jobs market than generations before. When I grew up getting a degree set you apart from the competition. Today it has become commonplace and students are expected to achieve at least a 2:1 and must offer additional skills and experience to stand out. Candidates are competing in a global jobs market and one which offers much less job security than it did for their parents.

This research is significant for those educating young people in schools and colleges. It suggests that we need to be much better at detecting signs of emotional distress, which can get overlooked in light of more obvious behavioural problems.

It also adds weight to the argument for incorporating mindfulness techniques into our teaching and learning as we build young people’s resilience and help them take ownership of those things they can change, and let go of issues outside their control.

What can marshmallows teach us about student success?

Sally Dicketts is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning.
Follow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts

marshmallow1

Picture the scene. You are left alone with your favourite sweet treat and told not to eat it – or at least told not to eat it for 20 minutes after which your self-control will be rewarded with double helpings.

You can’t leave the room, you can’t do anything else, just sit and wait.

Would you forego instant gratification for the promise of something better in less than half an hour?

Continue reading “What can marshmallows teach us about student success?”