Group Director City & Guilds Group
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A level playing field: why it’s time to rebrand vocational education

29th Aug 2019
Group Director City & Guilds Group
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young people looking at exam results
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With the skills gap now wider than ever, the UK’s young people and employers need to embrace vocational education paths more than ever – but why are people so reluctant?

With the summer drawing to a close, many of the UK’s young people have now received their exam results and are weighing up their options. When considering the next steps for their future the focus, more often than not, is directed towards traditional academic paths – but this doesn’t need to be the case.

The common pathway through GCSEs, A Levels (and other national equivalents) and on to university, however, is not suitable (or right) for everyone.

At a time when skills gaps are seemingly widening by the day, most notably within the STEM sector, it is vital that we get better at supporting young people to find the right route into employment.

That means opening up all education avenues and promoting the benefits of vocational options.

We need to change perceptions so that vocational education is viewed as being on a par with going to university, rather than just a lower ranking alternative for those who don’t get the grades.

Creating parity of esteem

As a nation, the UK has always been steeped in traditional education and has never given vocational pathways the same weighting as their academic counterparts.  

Despite rising tuition fees, students are still encouraged to pursue a university degree, with vocational courses seen as a second-choice option.

Too many parents and teachers still look down on vocational routes, unaware that some of the country’s most exciting, fast-growing and lucrative industries can be accessed more easily via technical pathways.

As a first step, it’s of critical importance that this changes – after all, if we discourage young people from exploring all of their options, it’s not just them that will suffer, but businesses and the economy too.

Rather than pigeonholing students, we need to ensure they are aware of all of the routes into the workplace – especially the alternatives to academia.

It’s essential that the government works with schools to better promote the different technical paths that are available and the benefits they bring to those that opt to pursue them.

Bringing technical training into the spotlight

It’s not just students who need to know about their options - their families and schools need to be informed too, to ensure they are keeping up to date with the ongoing reforms to technical education in the UK.

Too many parents and teachers still look down on vocational routes, unaware that some of the country’s most exciting, fast-growing and lucrative industries can be accessed more easily via technical pathways.

Take apprenticeships, for example. Apprenticeships offer an unparalleled opportunity for young people to earn while they learn, opening up careers in key industries from engineering and construction, through to hospitality and media.

Students can complete apprenticeships in almost every sector and at every level up to degree, giving them a great route into employment without the debt that accompanies university.

Our education system needs to be built with the objective of better serving our economy.

There is still not enough awareness of them within schools, however.

Next September will see the roll out of T Levels across the UK, a technical alternative to the traditional A Level path.

The government recently declared that the undertaking of a T Level will be so rigorous and time-consuming it will be the equivalent of studying three A Level courses.

While declarations like this are effective at bringing technical training into the spotlight, it will be ineffective unless the country’s young people view T Levels as a desirable option after finishing GCSEs, and employers regard them highly when recruiting workers.

For this to happen, we need to ensure the stigma is removed from vocational education, so that it is considered to be just as prestigious as academia.

An education system that works for the UK’s future

Getting this right will not only help young people decide what’s best for their own future, but it will also be vital for ensuring the continuation of the UK’s talent pipeline.

As skills gaps continue to widen and employers struggle to recruit the workers they need, it’s of critical importance that we have a skills system in place that is training the workforce of tomorrow.

We need training providers and colleges to work together with businesses and government to develop a roadmap for skills development that not only supports learners, but matches the needs of employers too.

Put simply, our education system needs to be built with the objective of better serving our economy.

With our future looking increasingly uncertain after Brexit, it is imperative that our education system is working to help young people decide what career they want to go into and the path that will take them there.

We need to create a change in societal mindset so that vocational education is not seen as a plan B for school leavers, but an equally rewarding route into employment, and one that is just as valuable and worthwhile as academia.

Interested in this topic? Read Why apprenticeships are thriving alongside Brexit uncertainty.

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