Academic qualifications on their own will never be enough preparation for the world of work

In the world of education August is, understandably, dominated by A Level and GCSE results… but are the academic qualifications at the heart of our education system doing enough to prepare young people for their future careers?      

Time and again the all-too familiar message from employers is that too many school-leavers and graduates simply do not possess the key skills that they are looking for.  A lack of basic employability skills – such as communication, teamwork and knowing how to behave professionally in a working environment – is frequently cited, and this is compounded by a paucity of actual work experience. 

Certain recent exam reforms – such as the removal of speaking and listening skills from English GCSEs – have not helped the development of core employability skills.  We also see ever-increasing pressure on schools to perform well in ‘league table’ measures of academic learning, whilst achievements in practical and vocational BTEC courses no longer count towards the ‘Gold Standard’ of 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.  This emphasis has left precious little space left in the secondary curriculum for learning that develops the employability skills that exams do not test.

This bias towards attainment in academic qualifications, coupled with a tendency to dismiss or downgrade vocational learning, continues through to degree level and is reflected in successive Governments’ focus on increasing the numbers of students going to university.  

In and of itself, supporting the graduate-level skills and knowledge needed for highly-skilled occupations is to be welcomed.  The problem, however, as highlighted in a recent IPPR report, is the way in which the expansion of higher education has been pursued without a corresponding emphasis on the development of vocational learning at all levels.  This has contributed to a failure to address our polarised labour market, in which we see a concentration of high-skilled jobs at the top and low-skilled jobs at the bottom.  The intermediate skilled jobs in the middle do exist (there’s forecast to be an extra 3.6m of them by 2022), and these are jobs that are crying out for people with vocational qualifications equivalent to A-level or above and/or apprenticeships. 

With the rising cost of gaining a degree the tide is turning at last and we are seeing more young people and their parents recognising that vocational learning, including apprenticeships, can offer a more affordable and direct route into a wide range of rewarding careers.  Demand from young people for apprenticeship places is growing: this year the number of 16 and 17 year olds choosing an apprenticeship as their next step after GCSEs was up by 18 per cent.  

We need to build on this and make sure the message reaches every school, parent, careers advisor and student about the fantastic vocational and work-based learning opportunities that are available.  Colleges like City College Norwich have an outstanding record of offering courses that are oriented to the development of workplace skills, underpinned by substantial employer input, and with opportunities for students to spend time in real work environments and on placements as part of their training.       

The newly opened University Technical College Norfolk (UTCN), a completely new type of school for 14 to 19 year olds, is breaking down the old academic/vocational divide by combining both aspects within an innovative curriculum that has been developed closely with employers.  At UTCN employability is no mere ‘add-on’ to the curriculum; leading employers in the advanced engineering and energy sectors work directly with our students to tackle the engineering skills gap.         

We also need to develop what the Gazelle Colleges Group (drawing on Steve Mills of IBM) refers to as the “T-shaped” personal qualities of enterprise, networking and creativity, coupled with up-to-date technical competence that goes beyond the acquisition of skill-based qualifications alone.  

Wouldn’t it be great if, every August, we celebrated not just qualifications successes, but the ‘graduation’ of students with an all-round set of work experiences, demonstrable employability skills, and the life skills and personal qualities needed to succeed in the world of work and beyond?