Technical education isn’t second class

Anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a massive proponent of technical education as a worthy alternative to traditional academic paths. Back in 1995 I was working as a lecturer in a Further Education college where I could see the energy and excitement that students had to vocational courses. Far from being the dumping ground of the formal education system, it was full of career minded young people who wanted to crack on.

The extension of the Higher Education system over the last two decades has fundamentally misunderstood both the desires of learners and the needs of business and the economy. At the heart of this is, I believe, an innate snobbery and superiority complex that led policy makers to believe that if every child did A-levels and went on to University it would be in the betterment of society and a high skilled society. This false belief is also why I’m also opposed to universal free higher education.

It is also why I’m delighted to see the development of T-Levels as an alternative academic route for 16-18 year olds in the UK. If you don’t know, the T-level is a technical alternative to the A-level and is a two-year college or school based qualification designed specifically around a technical profession. One of which will be HR, which I’m on the panel to help design the requirements.

One of the most challenging aspects of the T-level proposals is the 45 days work experience a student needs to undertake during their studies. If you think about it, it absolutely makes sense for employers that a young person has not only learnt the theory, but had a chance to see it applied in the workplace. But it requires employers to plan ahead for the application in 2020 and 2022 to make sure that the opportunities are available.

So my ask is this. If you’re an HR professional or business leader and you’re constantly talking about skills gaps and the lack of technical skills in the economy. Start to think ahead, explore the T-levels that are being developed, think about the opportunities that you could create, engage with local education providers and help to make this new route to qualification a success, not just in the HR field, but all the other areas that T-Levels will operate in.

As I’ve said so many times before, you can sit on your hands and complain about skills, education and development. Or you can step up and make change happen. The choice, and the resultant outcome, is yours.

Find out more here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-t-levels/introduction-of-t-levels

https://youtu.be/Bv3zpEAm3sk

 

Qualifying success

I’m currently in-between receiving A-level results and GCSEs for my two kids. Having been through the exam period with them and now awaiting results, I’m reminded how frankly barbaric this process is. As a means of assessing potential and capability, it ranks up there with Russian roulette.

Having spent 25 years in the HR profession, I can’t think of a time when I have knowingly and meaningfully taken the school exam results of a job applicant into consideration. As a candidate I’ve never stated my exam results on my CV, nor have I been asked by a prospective employer to detail the grades or results.

Yet when I talk to my kids, they’re told that the exams and their results are critical to their success in life and in work. They’re told that if they don’t fulfil their potential in their exams, they won’t fulfil their potential in life and this is something that I’ve heard from other parents and young people from across the country. This belief is as dangerous as it is wrong.

As a long standing champion of disregarding educational qualifications in the recruitment process, I believe business has a big role to play in changing this dialogue. Our job is to identify potential, to seek out talent and to build capability – yet we know that there is no direct correlation between this an academic results or educational establishment. This is why not only should we fundamentally limit the use of academic qualifications in assessment, but we should be open and clear that we do.

Imagine a young person that has accepted the view that qualifications determine future success, receiving results that are below the average or below their expectations. At 16 or 18 they are building a belief system that is already closing down opportunities, they are already limiting their potential, when they’re not even a quarter of the way into their life.

Education is about learning, it’s about curiosity and growth. The moment it becomes about disappointment and containment, it has fundamentally lost its way.

 

Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.

Are you sure you’re recruiting the best?

Its back to a favourite topic of mine, education. Last week parents up and down the land were waiting to hear which secondary schools their children had got in to. As any parent who has ever been through the process will tell you, it is full of uncertainty, angst and unpredictability.

And unfairness.

The socio-economic bias in the education is already well established at this point and based on your background, your educational outcomes are already being influenced. In a wonderful piece of research carried out last year, the Sutton Trust highlighted that,

“The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%).”

There are a couple of factors at play, a fair amount of this (about half) is down to the catchment areas, with the same report highlighting that, “a typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority” but the rest of it is simply down to social selection in admissions processes, “85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more.”

Let’s just take a moment to consider this. In order to get into the top 500 comprehensive schools you need to live within the catchment area, which is likely to mean that your parents are probably going to have to either earn more, or borrow more. And if that doesn’t apply and yet you still manage to live within the catchment area, if you’re eligible for free school meals you’re less likely to get a place, even living in catchment.

The reason behind this is the over indexing of schools which are in control of their own admissions policies, with voluntary converter academies, faith schools and single sex schools all over-represented in the top 500 schools.

“Faith schools are among the most socially selective group of top schools, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools, and make up 33.4% of the list. Converter academies admit the lowest rate of disadvantaged pupils of the main school types, and comprise 63% of the top schools, compared to just 40% of all secondaries.”

What does the mean in terms of educational outcomes? In a separate report the Education Policy Institute found that, “In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs – meaning they are falling behind by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school.” Put simply, if you are a pupil from the least advantaged backgrounds your educational outcomes are nearly two years behind your peers when you get to take the first publicly recognisable qualifications.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this bias continues into A-levels and then to University, with the gap between those from lower socio-economic groups attending university widening even further over recent years.

Which begs the question, when you hire based on qualifications are you really sure you’re recruiting the best? Or just the luckiest?

References:

https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Selective-Comprehensives-2017.pdf

https://epi.org.uk/report/closing-the-gap/#

https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/01-02-2018/widening-participation-summary

https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/applicants-uk-higher-education-down-5-uk-students-and-7-eu-students