The narrow focus on A-Levels is a disservice to our future prosperity

Kirstie Donnelly
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It's as much a part of the British summer as Pimms, rainy days and strawberries and cream.

I’m talking about exam results; the fortnight when everyone’s focus is on A-Levels, GCSEs, clearing and whether today’s teenagers have it easier than their predecessors.

Year after year, I watch as the August news schedule is full of discussion around these qualifications, as if they are the only study option students have between the age of 14 and 19, and as if they are the be-all and end-all for any future career.

Yet on both counts, they are not.

For some young people, academic qualifications make perfect sense and the conveyor belt from GCSE to A-Level to university works well both for them and their future employers. But for other teenagers, and in many industries from digital to engineering, technical routes that focus on work-based learning and equipping young people with the broad skills needed for employment are more appropriate.

What matters is not that one is preferable to another, but that each route is treated with equal value, that young people and their guardians understand their choices, and that proper careers advice is provided. This is not happening at present. Our research has found that almost 70 per cent of teenagers plan to go to university despite only 30 per cent of available jobs forecast to be graduate roles, and that they are aware of less than one in five possible occupations. We aren’t doing a good enough job of helping people make fully informed decisions.

When I say “fully informed”, I mean that they understand that doing a technical qualification at 16 does not close any doors, from pursuing an apprenticeship to going on to higher education, or straight into the workplace. Crucially, many technical qualifications, including the ones that sit within the City & Guilds Techbac, carry UCAS tariff points.

Some university admissions staff have been slow to get to grips with technical qualifications, but awareness is growing and the message must be heard loud and clear that there is no “right way” into higher education, just as there is not with further education.

In fact, recent UCL research suggests that greater collaboration between FE colleges and universities could actually widen access to university education.

Of course, anyone who pays close attention to the annual August education debate will be familiar with this issue. So why bring it up now?

Because the context has changed. To start with, things seem to be getting worse not better. Recent reports have suggested that the narrow focus on eBacc subjects and the pressure on school budgets is resulting in schools limiting opportunities to study technical courses.

At the same time, the government is undertaking a significant reform programme to simplify and improve the technical opportunities on offer to 14 - 19 year olds, the centrepiece of which will be the introduction of T-Levels from 2020. Such reform has the potential to be transformative and to ensure employers have access to well-trained staff for years to come. But if it is to succeed, schools and parents will need to acknowledge that A-Levels and GCSEs are only one option of several.

Lastly, as the UK extricates itself from the EU, we will necessarily become more reliant on homegrown skills. It’s vital that we develop a talent pipeline in the UK for key industries, especially in the context of gaping and growing skills gaps. Academic routes can help meet this challenge, but modern economies need both knowledge and skills to flourish. Without offering an open system that places the same value on technical skills as it does on academic prowess, we will be doing our country a disservice.

In between the photos of smiling teenagers clutching envelopes, let’s talk about informing them of all the possible pathways to employment. Let’s stop assuming success equals GCSEs and A-Levels, and start to develop the twenty-first century education system that can meet the needs of the modern workplace. Let’s stop only funnelling young people down an academic pathway just because it’s how things have always been done.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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