Risking Our Children’s Futures
A report published last month by the Prince’s Trust exposed the growing crisis of the ‘lost generation’ of ‘neets’ – young people not in education, employment or training. There are now almost 1.3 million ‘neets’ aged between 16 and 24, their number has increased by 15% since 1997. The failure to tap their potential undermines social cohesion, damages the economy and puts a growing strain on the exchequer. The report estimates the cost at £3.65 billion a year.
As we waste a generation’s potential we fail to address the shocking production of still more school leavers without basic skills. Through written questions I have uncovered that 45 thousand 16 year-olds leave school each year either functionally illiterate or innumerate – each one a likely new ‘neet’.These young lives have been damaged by an education system that fails to engage those with practical aptitudes.
Vocational qualifications often fail to harness and develop practical talents partly because there is no clear progression route from one vocational qualification to the next; equivalent to the academic route of GCSEs, ‘A’ levels and degrees.
The authors of a London School of Economics study in 2003 concluded that we have created a complex academic system of vocational qualifications because of a lack of consensus about what vocational education is actually for.
Genuine esteem can only be achieved if we appreciate the true value of practical learning. What vocational education should be about is providing a rigorous pathway for students who wish to acquire a skilled craft. It should be rooted in practical learning and the acquisition of the skills necessary in particular occupations.
The new 14-19 specialised diplomas represent a golden opportunity to provide such a pathway. In his final report Lord Leitch writes that they ‘must succeed’ but profound doubts are already being expressed about their implementation. There is a danger that the introduction of the first five diplomas next year is being rushed, limiting the opportunity for employer engagement in their design.
There are also fundamental concerns that the lack of clarity about the purpose of vocational education that has handicapped curriculum reform in the past may undermine the diplomas. In particular, fears that they will not contain sufficient practical learning to provide a meaningful step to acquiring a craft.
The Nuffield review of skills has warned that this emphasis on theoretical learning means that we may ‘once again be witnessing the process of ‘academic drift’ that occurred with both GNVQs and Advanced Vocational Certificates of Education (AVCEs).The Education Secretary has even got his apology in early by admitting that the diplomas ‘may go horribly wrong’. The absence of practical learning means there is a great danger that the diplomas will be too general in content to provide either a meaningful academic or vocational education. If this is the case then they will simply add to the current confusing array of qualifications and do nothing to provide the kind of clear pathway for vocational education we so desperately need.
If the new diplomas are to be a success then they must provide students with the opportunity to acquire genuine skills in the best environment. We must avoid the trap of teaching students in a classroom setting what it might be like to be an electrician or a mechanic. Barriers must be broken down between schools and FE colleges, schools alone simply do not have the facilities or the resources to deliver all 14 diplomas in practice. Genuine workplace experience should be a compulsory element of all diplomas – so students can be taught and inspired by experienced, skilled craftsmen.
To build a clear vocational path diplomas must be fully integrated with apprenticeships and higher vocational qualifications such as Foundation Degrees. If we can provide such a path then we can engage young people with practical talents and guide many of the ‘lost generation’ of ‘neets’ towards a brighter future and a fulfilling career.
John Hayes is Co-Chairman of The Cornerstone Group