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.

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.

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.

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?”

Social mobility undermined by spending plans

This week David Cameron pledged to protect per-pupil funding for five to 16 year-olds if the Conservatives are re-elected in May.

The announcement means that post-16 education remains unprotected from potential cuts – the only section of education to be left in such a vulnerable position.

We often talk about the importance of social mobility in our society. I believe that further education offers the greatest opportunities for social mobility. It equips school leavers with the skills and qualifications required for successful careers and enables adults to access higher education or retrain in light of changing circumstances.

However the funding consistently fails to measure up.

Continue reading “Social mobility undermined by spending plans”

Campaign puts £88bn value on soft skills

A campaign launched this week suggests that so called soft skills need to be taken much more seriously as factors for determining business success.

The term soft skills is commonly used and the terminology almost seems to place a value judgement on the attributes in question. But they can be generally defined as those skills that are difficult to measure. While it is relatively easy to test someone’s English language and maths skills, measuring initiative, good personal interaction and effective team working is much harder to do.

Continue reading “Campaign puts £88bn value on soft skills”