Verity O’Keefe considers the impact this latest move will have on vocational education
In the UK, 69 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds undertake academic study, with only 31 per cent choosing vocational education. By way of comparison, in Switzerland 35 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds are in academic learning and 65 per cent are studying vocational pathways. However, with increased tuition fees in higher education and more focus on apprenticeships there are now hopes for a rebalance in the UK.
This week is the start of the new academic year, and for the first time the ‘required participation age’ (RPA) is 17, with a commitment from government to increase this to 18 by 2015. This raises the question: Will the rise in the school leaving age negatively impact the numbers of vocational learners and offset potential rebalancing?
Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but my initial thoughts are that raising the RPA will not dramatically impact the number of 16- to 18-year-olds undertaking an apprenticeship, and here why.
We must start by remembering that the RPA does not necessarily mean young people must stay in school – they can choose one of the following options post-16:
Full-time education, such as school, college, or home education;
Part-time education or training if they employed, self-employed or volunteering full-time (defined as 20 hours or more a week).
This means effectively communicating the options available through informed careers advice to young people and their parents. Young people need access to an independent advisor, giving them face-to-face tailored advice, particularly at Key Stage 4, when complex decisions are made.
In addition, we must ensure that vocational learning and qualifications are as equally reflected as academic pathways in school league tables. If league tables favour academic learning, then the RPA could have detrimental impacts on vocational paths.
There is also a role for the Technical Baccalaureate, a performance measure which will be introduced in September 2014. The TechBacc consists of three elements – a high quality Level 3 vocational qualification, a Level 3 core maths qualification and an extended project. This has real potential to encourage more young people to consider a combination of options. It also shows that the government is committed to developing vocational education and qualifications that are truly valued by employers. This is of particular importance as only one in five manufacturers responding to our skills survey agreed that vocational qualifications were more relevant now than two years ago.
Study Programmes are another positive step. They offer young people work experience placements, English and maths provision (for those who have not achieved Level 2) alongside high-quality vocational qualifications, and are available to young people from this new academic year.
There is still great potential for University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools, given their strong focus on mixing vocational and academic learning. However, we need to see all types of schools use the RPA to really promote and encourage vocational and academic learning.
While the initial temptation for young people may be to continue their academic studies, industry will be calling out to young people to consider also vocational pathways. Two-thirds of manufacturers we surveyed said they currently offer apprenticeships and three-quarters specifically target the 16 to 18 cohort – so the opportunities have never clearer.