The Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to ‘continue to replace lower-level, classroom based Further Education courses with high-quality apprenticeships that combine training with experience of work and a wage.’ Given that we now have a Conservative-only government, we need to understand what this might mean for colleges and the young people they educate.
As a pledge it sounds OK. Replace something bad with something good, something lower-level with something high-quality, replace boring and unchallenging classroom stuff with real work combined with training – and a wage.
Switch the descriptors and we get: ‘continue to replace high-quality classroom based Further Education courses with low-level apprenticeships…’ Not quite so attractive perhaps.
Depending on how this commitment is interpreted and implemented, either of these 2 versions could become the reality for the many young people who leave school without 5 good GCSE grades, a full English Bacc or whatever the requirements are for advanced level study post-16.
We have yet to see exactly how this promise pans out for 16-19 year olds. For adults, it’s already clear that funding is being diverted from education to apprenticeships with the loss of many high-quality educational opportunities which are much in demand. Is this what’s in store for young people?
The manifesto statement prompts two questions of definition:
1. What are meant by ‘lower-level classroom based further education courses’?
All courses below advanced level (or level 3) can be described as being ‘lower level’ post-16. If they’ve done well at 16, young people can move straight on to an advanced programme. But for those who have not yet fully achieved at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) there need to be some intermediate rungs on the ladder to bridge the gap. Many sixth forms and FE colleges offer full-time courses for 16 and 17 year olds who are not yet ready to progress to level 3. These include GCSEs, level 2 and level 1 vocational programmes which build on students’ vocational aspirations while consolidating their literacy, numeracy and study skills, usually with plenty of work experience. So ‘lower-level’ is not another way of saying ‘lower-quality’, it is a factual description of everything below level 3. Far from being dead-ends, these ‘lower-level’ programmes are real stepping-stones and many students successfully progress from them to advanced level courses and then on to university.
2. What is meant by ‘replace’ ?
Funding has already been withdrawn from a wide range of short vocational courses which were not deemed to be of value and a new generation of more challenging vocational programmes with more external assessment is being introduced. These courses need time to settle down and make an impact. If the government, through the Education Funding Agency (EFA), intends to ‘de-fund’ another whole swathe of ‘lower level’ programmes they could be leaving an awful lot of young learners high and dry at 16. Without the intermediate rungs to bridge the gap, we could in effect be saying: ‘if you haven’t succeeded in education by 16, that’s it’ and it could spell the end of inclusive, comprehensive post-16 education of the sort that is on offer in many sixth form, further education and tertiary colleges.
This may be an excessively pessimistic scenario and let’s hope no one is planning this level of aspiration-crushing. However it brings us to another question: what educational entitlement do we want for all young people aged 16-19?
The apprenticeships which are seen as the alternatives to the ‘low-level’ courses are basically jobs with training. These are highly desirable if they are real jobs with real training. As such they are a vital part of an economic and employment strategy requiring government and employers to work together to create new opportunities for young people in the labour market.
But are they part of an educational offer? An approach which relies on apprenticeships as the favoured ‘vocational’ route needs to address this question. Are apprenticeships for young people simply about jobs and training or should they have an educational content beyond functional literacy and numeracy?
For me, part of the answer can be found in the idea of a National Bacc framework for all young people. An award which would be capable of offering 16-19 year olds a good general education, a degree of specialisation, practical and work based learning and would be available at both level 2 and level 3 and be accessible wherever they are studying or working.
If we believe in offering all young people a rich and broad education to 18, we will need to define what it looks like – before it’s too late.
More on vocational education:
5 vocational myths to avoid (March 2015)
Bacc on the agenda (March 2015)
Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)
Guess what? Vocational students go to university too (March 2014)