Education reform should be far wider than changing the name of KS4 qualifications

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In our Route to Growth report launched earlier this year we set a benchmark of 65% of school leavers to achieve five GCSE grades A* to C including English and maths by 2015.

The reason we set this target is that core qualifications are vital for a young person's future success, whatever route a young person goes on to follow – whether it is straight into work, into an apprenticeship or onto further and/or higher education.

Any future qualification must build on this target, including the Department for Education's proposals to reform Key Stage 4 qualifications. Reading the DfE's consultation on reforming qualifications for 14-16 year olds, it strikes me that the biggest change is renaming‘GCSE's to‘EBCs' (English Baccalaureate Certificates).

Yes if you achieve EBCs in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language you receive a ‘Full English Baccalaureate' which may increase attainment in some of the core subjects – but is a change in the name really enough? I don't think so.

One of the things the government is missing is looking at how to improve how the subjects are taught such as getting more teachers in with specialist knowledge and reviewing the case for capping the repayment fees for teachers that train in key subjects and go on to teach them - particularly when eight in ten teacher training places are at universities so trainees are also facing those £9,000 a year fees.

In our Skills for Growth report we provided real policy recommendations to policy-makers that will improve the pipeline of new skills into the industry.

Among these recommendations we called for schools to be given more freedom to allow professionals, such as engineers, to go into schools on a part-time basis to teach core subjects such as maths, as well as their specialities.

Teaching in this way can help engage and inspire young people and may even lead to fewer pupils asking the age-old maths lesson question ‘When will I ever need this in my life?' As we all find out later in life, no matter what you do, maths plays a fundamental role…how I wish I paid more attention in my maths classes!

Whilst the proposals being put forward by government, and the opposition – EBCs and Technical Baccalaureate– have their merits, they will only make a difference when complemented by impartial careers advice and high quality work experience.

Manufacturers struggling to fill vacancies cite a lack of relevant qualifications (45%) and a lack of relevant work experience (57%) amongst candidates.

Much of this depends on the choices made by young people at an early age, including school choices (not just independent, academies, maintained of free schools, but also University Technical Colleges and Studio Studios). Face-to-face careers advice is fundamental and yet this is no longer available for those under the age of 19.

Work experience also plays an influential role. It was great to hear that seven in ten of our member companies offer work experience to young people. But how disappointing that this comes in the same year that the government announces work experience will no longer be compulsory at any key stage.

The focus of education reform should be on driving up standards. Employers want to see examinations that are more rigorous. Moves towards a single exam body setting the papers for each subject, and 100% external assessments may help to achieve this, but we also need to see more learning that is relevant to the real business environment.

Finally – before this blog turns into an essay – we must remember that manufacturers take on young people with both vocational and academic profiles. They do not tend to prioritise one over another, but instead see them as complimentary.

The manufacturing industry will continue to put vocational education on the same esteem as academic learning.

We are even starting to see hybrids of the two in the form of Higher Apprenticeships for example – a development manufacturers welcome. So we must ensure that changes to academic qualifications do not negatively impact the status of vocational qualifications.

Reforming Key Stage 4 qualifications may have some benefits....but it's time to tackle education reform far more widely.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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