Dear candidates…

How to talk about post-16 education in the election campaign.

Dear candidates,

The general election campaign has started and you’ll be wanting to talk about all sorts of issues and hoping to win support. You can’t expect to be an expert on every policy area but you will need to have a quotable opinion on pretty much everything. No doubt your party will provide you with talking points and brief you about how to phrase things.

Education should be an important election theme and the 16-19 or ‘sixth form’ phase deserves its share of airtime.  We know you like soundbites and political shorthand, so here are just a few brief tips on how to talk about post-16 education in England and some suggestions about what to avoid saying.

1. Stereotypes:

Please avoid the easy stereotypes. Remember that 16-19 year olds are as diverse as any other age group and don’t come in neat types, so you might want to avoid labelling them as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘bright’ or ‘less able’. You might also want to steer clear of assumptions about them based on how well they achieved at 16, whether they happen to study in a college or a school sixth form or whether they’re planning to progress to university or not. Don’t make assumptions about providers either, based on what they’re called; they are pretty diverse too, whether they’re schools, sixth form colleges or further education colleges.

2. Skills:

Please don’t idolize ‘skills’ in isolation. Education is about both knowledge and skills. They are essential and inseparable and we’re as much a ‘knowledge economy’ as we are a ‘skills economy’ so please don’t talk about the ‘skills’ sector when you mean ‘colleges’ or ‘training’. Education and training are both necessary to equip people for work but they don’t of themselves create jobs. Please don’t promise that apprenticeships will solve unemployment or skills shortages; they are jobs with training and are not an employment panacea. Remember that vocational students go to university too, so find out more about vocational courses before describing them as confusing or inadequate and don’t assume that the elusive ‘parity of esteem’ can just be bought or wished into existence.

3. Selection:

Please recognise selective practices where they exist. Remember that there are plenty of comprehensive sixth form providers and there’s nothing natural or necessary about selection at 16 although selective sixth forms have proliferated. Before celebrating the ostensibly higher achievements of selective providers, make sure you ask who they keep out. If you are opposed to schools deciding who to select at 11 or 14, consider how you can justify the same practices at 16.

4. Choice:

Please don’t assume that opening new providers is always a good idea. Remember that 16 year olds are already free to choose where to study although they don’t all have the same range of options open to them. Opening more sixth forms and offering people more choice sounds like a good idea but increasing the number of providers can often lead to a narrowing of options as new sixth forms tend to want to offer the same things, jeopardising a broad, viable offer in many places.

5. Funding:

Please tell us what kind of education you think all young people should be entitled to and tell us about your priorities for any new investment. At the moment, we are barely funding 17 hours of teaching per week for our 16 and 17 year olds, and 18 year olds receive even less. What do you think we should do about our current low ambitions and part-time offer for this age group?

We would also love to know how you think education should be better organised and to hear your aspirations for the future society which today’s young people will live in.

16-19 education is critical to our future as a country. It needs to feature in this general election campaign, so please do talk about it. Good luck making yourself heard and good luck with your campaign.

See also:

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Sixth form resolutions for 2017 (January 2017)

What future for Sixth Form Colleges? (December 2016)

Going beyond (October 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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