Having produced an interim report on reforming post-14 education, Mike Tomlinson is keen to hear the views of HR. Scott Beagrie reports
Another year, another fresh initiative to tackle the UK’s serious skills shortages. This time it’s a crack at reforming post-14 education and an attempt to reverse one of the worst staying-on rates for 16 and 17 year olds in the world. If successful, the 14-19 Reform will herald the most radical shake-up in education in 50 years.
Under the new proposals, all existing qualifications would be replaced by a single European-style diploma taken at four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced.
Regardless of a student’s vocational pathway, there would be a common core to the curriculum made up of knowledge, skills and experience, designed to test competency across a range of areas.
Although the final report won’t be submitted until the autumn, key to the reform working is actively involving employers to meet their expectations of the education system.
“What we want more than ‘this is a good idea’ or ‘this is a bad idea’ is detailed help to turn the framework into a detailed reality,” says Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector heading up the government inquiry into exam reform.
“I mean, we talk about basic skills of numeracy and basic skills of language – nowhere is it laid down what actually employers mean by that. For example, do they mean financial literacy as well? So we need their help,” he says.
Here, Tomlinson discusses his views on skills and training.
Q. Do qualifications matter, and why has more not been done to address the serious skills shortages in the UK?
A. The line is simple: we have far too many young people who are not fully engaged in the education they are offered. We have too many who leave school – whether at 16, 17 or 18 – without the necessary level of knowledge and skills in areas such as functional mathematics, functional language, ICT, or without sufficiently well-developed softer or employability skills such as working as a team and organising work.
Many young people are not switched on [enough] to want to continue their learning and development to have the knowledge and skills for the changing employment needs they will have to face over the next 50 years.
So that’s our purpose. It’s not about qualifications, it’s about what we teach and how we give information about what they’ve acquired, learned and understood.
Q. Would you say it’s more of a shift towards vocational preparation then?
A. Certainly a shift towards having available strong vocational pathways from 14 years onwards, rather than what we have at the moment for young people. We’ve messed around and failed as a nation to really address the need for good vocational qualifications.
Q. Isn’t the real issue the school leavers’ lack of employability and not skills gaps?
A. Yes. We have to be careful, though, not to assume that education is only about making people employable.
It’s an important grounding for young people, but in terms of very job-specific competencies, that must always be down to the employer. Schools and colleges can’t be expected to prepare every individual for specific jobs. But what we have to do is incorporate more of the preparation for employment than we do at the moment.
Q. The Japanese frequently come out on top in league tables of educational achievement, but it is widely acknowledged the parents are highly demanding when it comes to their children’s education. So should parents play a more active role?
A. First of all, education is a partnership between parents, the learner and those who are educating and training them. If any of those partners don’t fulfil their responsibilities fully, it puts the learner at a serious disadvantage.
So parents are crucial but we have to help them understand what is expected of them, how they can support their children and convince them of the importance of learning and wanting to continue to learn well beyond leaving school.
Q. How would you propose to do that?
A. The challenge for the education and training service is to engage the parents in a meaningful way in that process, and some schools do it better than others.
We have to remember that for many parents, their experience of education might not have been a happy one, and so they won’t engage readily – they are apprehensive or scared of engaging with their children’s schools. So there are quite a number of barriers to break down.
Q. What can be done to bring the disenfranchised and unemployed who have switched off from education back into the workplace?
A. Most of them start to be disenfranchised at school, where they do not find what they are being asked to study relevant or motivating, and they cannot see how it will lead to the kind of jobs they see themselves fulfilling.
We have to start by making the provision available to all young people more varied, and more in tune with their needs and aspirations. For instance, we know for many young people the vocational dimension is highly motivating, yet many 14-year-olds are not able to access many, if any, of the vocational routes they are interested in.
Q. Does the proposed review fit with the Government’s White Paper, 21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential?
A. There is a section in the White Paper that refers directly to 14- to 19-year-old work issue. What we have to do is lay the foundation, from 14 on, for young people to have transparent pathways and be able to progress and acquire the increasingly more occupation-specific skills they need.
We have to get them to stay on and enjoy learning and training.
Starting at 14, the vocational option would be broad, but at the same time has the capacity to insert chunks that are more occupationally specific.
So a 14- to 16-year-old might include in their broad vocational area the technical certificates associated with Modern Apprenticeships.
Q. As well as Modern Apprenticeships, what other government training or learning initiatives do you envisage the diploma dovetailing with?
A. The Working Group must be careful to ensure that its proposals are compatible with recently introduced initiatives, such as the Skills Strategy, changes to the Key Stage 4 curriculum, the 14-19 Pathfinders and the Maths Inquiry.
Q. Your proposals, if accepted, will obviously require a wholesale restructuring of the system. How will that occur on a practical level?
A. The Working Group acknowledges in its interim report that it will take time, and that changes need to be extremely well managed so as to minimise any disruption.
The proposals will constitute a substantial longer-term agenda and any reforms will be introduced in carefully planned steps over the next 10 years. The group will advise how any eventual transition can be smoothly managed.
Q. The CBI has said that the Government should “aim to raise standards, not simply change structures”. Are you concerned your reforms will dismantle what it describes as “the world-recognised gold standard of GCSEs and A-levels”?
A. The Working Group is considering evolution of the system, not revolution. New diploma qualifications will grow out of existing programmes, including GCSE, AS and A-level, as well as some vocational programmes. The diploma will thus embody and raise existing high standards. Standards will be raised at all levels, not just the advanced.
Ultimately, the proposed changes will ensure all young people develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they will need for success in later learning, employment and adult life.
Q. The CBI’s director-general, Digby Jones, has said that business leaders will take some convincing that the proposed overhaul would reduce literary and numeracy problems. What would you say to convince Personnel Today readers that it will work?
A. The core part of the diploma will include essential communication and mathematical skills. Our aim is that all school-leavers have the basic skills essential for employability, further and higher learning and adult life. This has always been a fundamental objective of The Working Group.
Q. What do you make of the recent comments made by Greg Watson, acting chief executive of the Oxford and Cambridge exam board, that it could end up being a confusing, costly ‘white elephant’ because of different demands from different quarters?
A. I don’t accept that. There are obvious risks with any change but I don’t understand the basis of his argument – [especially] if you have a coherent programme that is intended to develop the necessary skills and knowledge that we have just been talking about, and that the programme has some integrity.
Q. Have you had any feedback or response from HR directors?
A. The Working Group has consulted widely with a range of stakeholders, including businesses and their HR directors. So far, the feedback has been extremely helpful and we are very keen that your readers share their views with the Working Group about what is needed from the employees of the future. (See box at top of page for contact details).
What do you need from employees of the future?
This is your chance to add your views to the discussion. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call the consultation hotline on 020 7255 5421, or write to Consultation Unit, Department for Education and Skills, Level 2a, Castle View House, Runcorn WA7 2GJ