Thursday, January 15, 2015

One thing that could transform education - apprenticeships

How many Secretaries of State have been responsible for ‘vocational skills’ in the last three decades? Answer at foot of blog. The skills sector has been subjected to every half-baked whim and fancy for that period. It’s treated like an unwanted child, handed off into care then bounced around the system, itself dysfunctional, used and abused, until the next election comes along.
Remember - the majority of young people in the UK do NOT go to University. Yet a hugely disproportionate amount of energy, money and reflection go into HE. The rest is a mess which has led to generations of young people being left confused, misled, even abandoned. Not that there’s been a shortage of reports, quangos, programmes and qualifications.
No shortage of these. Anyone working in this field will receive dozens of these. All overwritten, few with any hard-headed solutions on parity of qualifications. Dearing, Beaumont, Cassel, Tomlinson, Leitch, Wolf and Richards. Whenever parity of qualifications is mentioned it gets burned by the civil service and politicians. Some, like the Wolf report, downright destructive (see my critique). She was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Unfortunately, reports have recommendations, the two easy recommendations are 1) more research (delay tactic) and 2) a new organisation. This is lazy. Net result…. New organisations, quangos and programmes….
Here we go. MSC, Training Commission, Training Agency, Training & Enterprise councils, LSC, YPLA, SFA, EFA, Basic Skills Agency, LSIS, Industry Training Boards, Occupational Standards Councils, NTOs, SSCs, Industry Partnerships, Training Standards Council, Adult Learning Inspectorate, RDAs, now LEPs. The half-life of quangos is, I suspect, getting shorter and shorter. But let’s be honest none of these have really delivered. They’re poorly led, largely talking shops and even although they had meaty budgets, had no real teeth.
We’ve had programme after programme, all of which end up on the scrapheap; YTS, TOPS, YT, Apprenticeships (various), Traineeships, Train to gain, E2E, Skills for life, Adult Basic Skills, EMA, Employer Ownership of Skills. It goes on and on and on, tons of rebranding, confusion about future funding, and flaky delivery. 
On qualifications, we’ve had NVQs, GNVQs, AVCEs, Applied GCSEs, disastrous Diplomas and no end of specific qualifications in schools and colleges that have never really had the time or backing to get purchase with students, parents, teachers and employers. They’re either strangled shortly after birth or get attacked in a Herod-like report which calls for their abolition (Wolf again).
One word has survived through all of this and that is ‘apprenticeships’. Despite being literally destroyed in the 70s and 80s it has refused to go away. Expect, in the coming election, the word apprenticeship to be writ large in all manifestos. Expect also, confusion and the refusal to really promise these in the quality and number that is needed. Most apprenticeship schemes have hundreds, sometimes thousands of applicants for often just a handful of places. The demand is huge, supply paltry. Now is the time to act, with promises, backed up with real money and numbers. It need an ‘x-million’ apprenticeship campaign.
Political myopia
We have seen politicians across the board diminish, demote and demolish vocational learning. Our modern breed of politicos and civil servants have no contact with this side of life. They are products of high-end HE and see it all as rather down-market or ‘trade’. You know that things have gone into meltdown when a public-school, Oxford educated academic is Labour’s Education Secretary. Nevertheless, they are in a state of ignorance and we can fill this vacuum if we so wish.
To be fair, the sector itself is also to blame. It’s too tame, doesn’t lobby effectively and does too much talking, not enough stalking. The sector has to get more robust, fight its corner and be consistent in its demands; political, organisational and fiscal. The City&Guilds document (mercifully short) Sense & Instability is a good start.
My starting point would be a consistent and concrete input by all the main players in the sector, or as many as we can muster, on stable and meaningful qualifications, especially apprenticeships. This should include clear measures on career guidance and action in schools. Demand action on the ridiculous demand that GCSE maths be the gold standard in all apprenticeships and go for a functional maths qualification as an alternative. We need a clear single number on apprenticeships offered, a clear idea of what an apprenticeship should be, on length, structure and assessment (forget this stupid idea of end-point assessment as if it were the final exams in a degree) and clear routes for funding and employer involvement. Not easy as one needs employer engagement, good providers, accreditaion bodies and, above all - a flow of students. Who pays is the big issue but some sort of employer/public fuel mix is ideal. My preference is for a 'voucher' scheme that employers can get subsidised. Apply Occam’s razor, the minimum number of entities to reach your goal – and go for it. We also need to be innovative but innovation is not innovation unless it is sustainable. So we need a solid and stable platform that looks out over 5-10 years to build a sustainable system of vocational learning that is porous to and from the existing academic streams and offers REAL choices to every young person.

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