A recent report from the thinktank CentreForum makes the case for industry professionals to undertake one day a week teaching secondments to train and support vocational learners studying in their specific fields. This proposal should be looked at seriously, and it could further support the very positive efforts being made to give due focus on vocational education.
There are without doubt clear benefits which could be sought through the proposed ‘Train Too’ scheme to bring industry experts to teach, train and support students for a day a week. We know from NUS research that students really value industry experience, and want to see evidence that their tutors were clearly aware of current practice in the relevant sector. In fact, many students on vocational courses thought it was essential that their teachers had worked in a directly relevant industry, and that they maintained their link to practice.
‘Train Too’ could also be a good way of preparing learners for workplace culture. There are presently very few opportunities for learners to experience the realities of being in the workplace, particularly given changes to work experience requirements for 14-15-year-olds. Young learners ought to be better supported to gain this experience, which this scheme could aid.
And I would also hope that the scheme could support efforts at boosting the reputation of the further education sector, and in defining FE providers as experts in the delivery of vocational education. The proposal set out by CentreForum to support former secondees to stay connected through an alumni network is therefore an important part of the scheme – which reflects the excellent Future First programme which aims to develop strong alumni networks across state schools, emulating those that frequently exist in private schools.
But it’s clear that we need to build on the report and do more. Very happily there appears to be growing consensus across all the main parties as to the importance of vocational education, and this presents a tremendous opportunity for us to push hard to radically develop this vital aspect of our education system.
The ‘multiple engagement’ model set out in the report places a great deal of emphasis on improving links between providers and employers – and this is certainly of great value. However, learners are referred to in the report as the ‘fourth stakeholder’ – and it’s unclear as to how learner voice will be triangulated with provider and employer voice in order to ensure Train Too is designed with the learner interest genuinely at its heart. This must be developed if the proposal is to be taken up.
The report also makes reference to learner, provider and industry perceptions of the labour market, and the ‘dangerous perception gap’ that can exist between these groups. Without a stronger, more equitable, system of information, advice and guidance, in which careers advice is grounded in local labour market information, and face-to-face impartial guidance is available to young people as standard, there is little hope of closing this perception gap.
Last, the report refers to a lack of experienced maths teachers in further education, as well as negative employer perceptions of the level to which FE learners are prepared for work. While inviting industry experts to teach in FE is a positive thing, more should be done to translate employer and learner needs into useful and recognised qualifications, particularly in maths. It is incredibly important to work with employers, providers and learners to develop applied qualifications at level 2 which are accessible to learners and also recognised and respected by employers.
Overall, ‘Train Too’ could be a good way of driving improvements in the quality of vocational education and the esteem with which it is held, but we can also use this opportunity to reflect on deeper changes we can make. Vocational education has to be at the centre of any plans to build a more progressive, truly accessible and relevant education system, and should form a critical part of the manifesto for any aspiring party of government.
Joe Vinson is vice-president (further education) at the National Union of Students. He tweets @JoeVinson
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