Some things in life are inevitable: swallows migrating; dodgy bank holiday weather; toast falling butter-side down. Also inevitable is the release of the A-level and GCSE results being followed by a swarm of media pundits arguing about educational standards, and schools boasting about the number of their students who have gained university places.
In 2001, Tony Blair stated that the government’s goal was for 50% of young adults to progress to higher education by 2010. From that point onwards, there was a relentless push towards putting young people through university courses. If you didn’t go to university, somehow you had failed. The realities of academic life – that studying doesn’t suit everyone, that it can lead to soul-crushing debt, and that there are insufficient ‘graduate jobs’ to go round – were quietly ignored.
This year, an increased number of respected figures in the education and employment worlds have raised their heads above the parapet and suggested that vocational courses and apprenticeships might benefit some students more than three years at university. Hallelujah!
Gradually – although too slowly, in my opinion – the stigma attached to non-academic education is being eroded. Increasing investment into post-18 vocational education is opening the eyes of both students and their parents to the wide variety of opportunities that exist in the workplace, and the benefits that can accrue from not leaping, lemming-like, onto a university course.
Don’t get me wrong. Most universities are wonderful places; I liked mine so much that they struggled to get rid of me. But times were very different then. I didn’t give a hoot about my future employment opportunities and my education was free. If I were leaving school now, I would have to think long and hard about what to do next.
Every young person is unique. Some love studying – but some are not suited to an education system of any description. Some will gain great benefits from a degree course – but others would be better off in a job or a well-run apprenticeship. It’s time we gave all of them, regardless of their preference, equal respect. What matters is that they find a way to establish themselves that suits them, not that they have a string of letters after their name.
It’s also time we paid more attention to what employers want. The expansion of on-job training courses and apprenticeships (including apprenticeship degrees which grew by 50 per cent this year) is a positive move and one that presents employers with a number of potential benefits.
Most importantly, it allows them to develop a new generation of qualified staff who have proven, hands-on experience. Let’s hope the trend towards acceptance of non-academic training gathers pace.
Karen Holmes is the author of What Employers Want : the employability skills handbook