Need for a rethink on vocational FE

NCFE recently teamed up with Campaign for Learning to launch a new policy paper titled: ‘No 16-18 year old left behind’. In this article, FE Policy Analyst, Mick Fletcher, shares his highlights of the paper:

A couple of years ago, I sat in a college foyer waiting for a meeting as students came out from their classes for morning break.  I was struck by how many of them were in uniform; the engineers in blue overalls, the hairdressers in dazzling white, catering students in their aprons and those preparing for a career in sport and recreation in their relevant kit.  Even the art and design students had their distinctive, if informal ‘uniform’ of a sort.  It struck me forcefully that as well as learning skills vocational students are beginning to assume an occupational identity. Unlike school uniforms, these occupational uniforms were worn with pride. It is a vital but underrated aspect of vocational FE – a way of giving self-respect and meaning to young people for whom academic schooling didn’t meet their individual learning style..

This observation was brought back to me on reading ‘No 16-18-year-old left behind’ – the collection of essays commissioned by NCFE and the Campaign for Learning. 

Occupational-focused training

The need for a focus on the educational development of young people rather than training in a limited set of prescribed skills comes through most directly perhaps in the contribution from Sue Pember from HOLEX. Her comment: “there is no pride in saying ‘I’m on a transition programme’” captures exactly what the issue is about the pejoratively titled ‘lower level further education’ – it doesn’t recognise the many ways in which courses with an occupational focus can motivate studentsand help them to achieve their career goals by alternative means.

Alternative routes to success

The same criticism is made of the English and maths resit policy, with Kevin Gilmartin from the Association of School and College Leaders talking of it as “rubbing their noses in disappointment”. It is not that the policy isn’t well intentioned; it’s simply blinkered and doesn’t take into account the fact that there are many routes to success, including alternative qualifications such as Functional Skills.

The need for consistent funding

The policy blindness when it comes to those who don’t wish to study A levels is compounded by the systematic underfunding of FE compared with schools.  As John Widdowson from New College Durham reminds us, if, despite all the odds, a young person does succeed in transitioning to a Level 3 programme after a year, the funding for the second year of that Level 3 programme is subject to a further cut of 17.5%. 

Apprenticeships and vocational FE – both of value

The persistent oversight by Government to demonstrate the value in programmes at Levels 1 and 2 in their own right runs the risk that colleges will cease to invest in them.  In many ways to focus on Level 3 provision for better motivated and more able students offers a more secure role for institutions, many of which are already struggling to stay afloat.  If that were to happen then it would compound the difficulties caused by changes in the apprenticeship system, well documented in this collection of essays by Kathleen Henehan from the Resolution Foundation.  Apprenticeships offer the same benefits to young people as well constructed vocational FE – learning skills, but more importantly, making the complex transition from school to working life. 

It is perhaps surprising that Government recognises in apprenticeships what it doesn’t seem to value in vocational FE. It is more surprising that there has been so little attention paid to reversing the steady decline in opportunities for 16-18 year olds via the apprenticeship route. Without a change of direction and some serious investment, a good proportion of our 16-18 year olds really will be left behind.

The full ‘No 16-18 year old left behind’ policy paper with articles from authors including the Education Policy Institute, Association of Colleges, Learning and Work Institute and the Resolution Foundation is available to view and download now.

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