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Post-16 education – a giant glitter globe?

09 August 2017

You are probably younger than me, but it is possible you remember just how magical those ‘glitter globes’ were in our youth. I didn’t even know they were called glitter globes until I looked them up on the internet, but they were transformational. A mundane plastic scene, to a seven year old girl with a bit of imagination, was transformed with a bit of a shake into a winter wonderland full of possibilities. So what has all this to do with education you ask? Well, it seems an apt metaphor to describe what is happening to post-16 education at the moment. It feels as if we are in one ginormous glitter globe that has been subject to a vigorous shake, with the intention of transforming the post-16 educational landscape into something magical. The only problem is that we are running around trying to catch all the pieces as they come twirling down, and put them into a framework that makes sense. The Sainsbury Review and the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan is one part of the transformation. Together with the apprenticeship levy, English and maths, work experience and the university technical colleges (UTCs), institutes of technology (IoTs) and the changes in specifications and standards, accountability measures, funding and loan changes and of course the HE reforms. It is possible, of course, that when the pieces settle a clear and sensible landscape will emerge which will provide the foundation for a world class system of education and training for generations. In order to make sure that our education landscape is truly world class we must view this as a whole. We absolutely must not make the mistakes of the past and make educational reform in a piecemeal fashion. The Wolf Reforms provided a chance to plan the post-16 curriculum in a sensible way, that suited the individual student. But then we had the imposition of the funding condition and a confused definition of work experience. Alongside this, highly complicated progress and accountability measures add nothing to quality improvement. Lots of glitter pieces came tumbling down that obscured the purpose and truly visionary impetus around the Wolf Reforms. Since then further announcements regarding the Sainsbury Review, the Skills Plan and the new T Levels together with the apprenticeship changes and the levy have added an additional layer to the confused landscape. And we shouldn’t forget the changes to what are now known as Applied General qualifications and A Level specifications. Nor can we forget the static funding. So how to put these pieces together? I would suggest that there are some really important bits of glue needed. Firstly, the 16-19 phase of education must be viewed as a whole and for the long term. There have been recent announcements about welcome additional funding to assist with the plans for T Levels, or more specifically the work experience element. But the T Levels will probably only reach about 25% of the post-16 cohort. The funding for the entirety of post-16 full-time education needs to be properly reviewed and the principles behind the Wolf Reforms need revisiting. If we really expect all young people, to improve their English and maths, to study a main programme, and gain valuable employability skills, then we must fund and plan this properly. And we must recognise that all this cannot be delivered in 16 hours a week maximum. After all, that is not even enough for four A Levels, let alone a full qualification in technical or professional education, plus maths and/or English, plus work experience specifically planned and designed for the individual student depending on their ambitions. We should consider the realities of the end point of post-16 education. Ideally, all our young people should be ready to take their place in the workplace, when they are ready. And some take longer than others to learn these skills. Some take many years. So whatever we design, it needs to be flexible, and it needs to have appropriate entry and departure points and allow skills development of the broadest kind alongside the specialist technical skills that our young people are desperate to develop. The former cannot be done without the latter. And finally we need to recognise that we have no real idea what the landscape will look like in our glitter globe 20 or 30 years hence. Something unpredictable is bound to come along and shake it all up again, and we should build in flexibility in our design now, with careful long term thinking about what our wonderful educational landscape will look like for all young people, once the pieces settle. Alison Birkinshaw is the President of the Association of Colleges and Principal and Chief Executive of York College