Education for economic recovery

29 September 2009

Cambridge Assessment draws MPs into a debate about education for economic recovery.

Summary of the Labour Party Fringe event – Education for economic recovery on Tuesday 29 September – as reported by DeHavilland:

Iain Wright MP, Minister for 14-19 reform and apprenticeships, claimed today that the Government’s commitment to legislating to raise the compulsory participation age in education to 18 was an 'historic commitment'.

Mr Wright was speaking at a Labour Party conference fringe event entitled “education for economic recovery”. Also speaking at the event was Pat Bacon, President of the Association of Colleges, Greg Watson, Chief Executive of the OCR, representing Cambridge Assessment, and John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. The event was chaired by education journalist and commentator, Mike Baker.

The Minister said there was a need to keep an eye on the long-term in the current economic climate and that it was vital to improve skills in order to compete effectively in the global economy. He acknowledged that the UK’s record on post-16 participation in education was not on a par with the country’s position as the fourth largest economy in the world.

Mr Wright said as a country we had become obsessed with trying to categorise people in education as either ‘academic’, ‘vocational’ or ‘practical’. He said if people were to successfully exploit the talents of each individual young person then there needed to be a flexible and personalised system. Mr Wright said he felt the system now in place was the right one to enable every young person to meet their aspirations for education and training.

The Minister said the Government must learn from previous recessions by not taking their eye off the ball regarding training, otherwise it would just store up political, social and economic problems for the future. He said that it was important for the Government to provide real help and opportunities for young people looking for training and employment and that he would be working with Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Yvette Cooper, to ensure that was the case.

Mr Wright also warned that companies needed to think about their future skills needs in a recession otherwise they might seriously inhibit their ability to grow in a recovery.

The Minister concluded by highlighting the Government’s ‘September Guarantee’ – the pledge that every 16 and 17 year old will be offered a place at school, in college or in workplace training, and the investment the Government was putting in to make this pledge a reality.

Opening the speeches earlier in the meeting was Pat Bacon from the Association of Colleges. Ms Bacon welcomed progress that had been made in encouraging young people to stay on in education and apprenticeships. She said it was important to recognise the role of further education in realising young people’s aspirations. She also said that colleges could help deliver value through an economic downturn and looked at three areas in particular.

Regarding 14-16 year olds, Ms Bacon highlighted that one million young people were already doing vocational qualifications and that there was a need to make sure these qualifications were valued and recognised. Ms Bacon suggested that colleges should have the possibility of delivering full time education for 14-16 year olds where appropriate. She said through working partnerships, high levels of support and personalised curriculums, colleges were making a difference.

Focusing on apprenticeships, Ms Bacon said the challenge was to grow apprenticeships in the current economic climate. She welcomed the fact that colleges themselves had already met their targets for the amount of apprenticeships they offered.

Talking about 18-25 year olds, Ms Bacon said this group had been hit particularly hard by the recession. She said colleges had been successful at widening educational access for young adults and that the work of further education deserved greater recognition as a driver of social mobility.

Speaking next was Greg Watson, Chief Executive of the UK division of the OCR exam board. Mr Watson said there were currently five assumptions that he felt needed to be addressed. These were the habit of planning skills models from the top down; identifying skills needs based on employers requirements not those of individuals when some of these employers will not be around following the recession; an addiction to large, complex, bureaucratic programmes; allowing specialisation to dominate ahead of focusing on general skills for young people’s readiness to work; an over-reliance on frameworks which was shutting out innovation.

Mr Watson then outlined ways these areas could be addressed. He said there should be a focus on bottom-up innovation from colleges; bite-sized programmes to get people back into work; a focus on generic skills that equip young people for the world of work; targeting of individuals and getting the skills right for them; and going with schemes that are already out there and working well rather than looking at frameworks that can shut out innovation.

Following Mr Watson was John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Mr Dunford focused on two areas; qualifications and investment.

Regarding qualifications, Mr Dunford emphasised the new diplomas. He praised diplomas, saying they were the first really good workable suite of qualifications to fill the gap between academic and vocational qualifications. He said it was especially important that diplomas were successful if the Government aim of increasing participation among 16-18 year olds and eventually making it compulsory was to be realised effectively.

Mr Dunford criticised the attitude of the CBI towards diplomas. He said diplomas needed support from businesses especially as some of these employers had been heavily involved in designing the diploma programmes.

Mr Dunford praised the general add-ons that existed in diplomas for giving a more rounded education. He said if these add-ons were available for diplomas they should be available for traditional academic qualifications too.

Mr Dunford also expressed concern for the future of diplomas, highlighting that they were expensive programmes that may be under attack in an expenses-cutting climate, and that there was uncertainty about the fate of diplomas after the next general election.

Regarding investment, Mr Dunford turned to cuts already identified by the Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, including the aim to get rid of a third of senior leadership roles in schools and colleges. Mr Dunford said the aim to federate senior leadership roles in schools and colleges was not feasible.

Mr Dunford called for college funding to be brought up to the same level as that of school sixth forms, and for more efficient distribution of funding.