Education and Skills

Looking Beyond the Pigeonhole

Thing is with pigeonholes, there’s not much space and there’s only one way in and out. Curious that one of the most intelligent birds on the planet would choose such a restrictive place of safety, writes Suzy Davies MS.

Maybe it’s that sense of safety that has been an unspoken undercurrent in the Welsh education for such a long time. Even in a comprehensive education system, we still are still pretty much pigeonholed at 16: university, college, secure job, insecure job, no job. One way in. One way out.

We are seeing changes in all parts of our education system. The new curriculum itself acknowledges that the future’s not found in the past. But as a whole picture, it still feels leaden, hidebound, restrictive. Unfocused. A cultural legacy of the power of the purse string; tied around the ankles of the people who have the ideas by the people who make the spending decisions.

In this piece, I just want to float a few ideas about post-14 education which aren’t about pigeonholes. And which raise new questions, for a different day, about the kind of Wales we are educating for.

First of all, Covid or no Covid, the future shape of the Welsh economy is anything but clear. Even taking into account hopeful talk about green recovery and foundational economy, this is not where our education system is anchored. The fact that the school curriculum is changing, that colleges and universities are re-examining their purpose, is testament to the truth that we’ve not equipped our young people, let alone our existing workforce, for this turbulent sea change.

“The economy”, of course, is not just about making money: It’s about creating an environment where all of us are not just valued for our contribution to society, but where we’re confident that we’ve been genuinely enabled to contribute. Not pressurised into a course of study which doesn’t get the best out of us – or excluded from one which would.

And what’s valuable? The financial and wellbeing prosperity of Wales depends as much on the individual who cares for a person with Alzheimers as it does on the person researching a cure for the disease.

But it also depends on that careworker not getting stuck as a result of a rocky early education, time out looking after children or depressed expectations because of their background.

I think that every young person should have the right to education and training, (unless they are in work) until they are 18. I see it as an investment. But we’re heading into a churning world where different core skills will be prized, where adapting expertise to new challenges will be expected. Where that careworker’s aptitudes can be developed through further learning opportunities at any time in her life, not jammed by her circumstances as an 18 year-old. The economy will need her. She may be the innovator you’ve been waiting for.

Which is why, if she needs a level 3* qualification to make the leap she couldn’t take at 18, I want us to pay for it via a Second Chance Fund. And I’d like her to be able to do that at her local college; part-time or full time, and, where possible, counting existing work-based experience towards her new qualification.

And if it takes her into the world of apprenticeships, she should have a clear line of sight through to a higher apprenticeship and even a degree apprenticeship if that’s a route to achieving her potential and making her most valuable contribution. That’s not a joined-up route to excellence at the moment. (We’ve already committed to more degree apprenticeships, of course).

Apprenticeships at all levels only work if there’s an employer involved. That’s pretty precarious right now. Apprentices are being laid off despite a £40m Covid package from Welsh Government. Our response has to be more about the work placement element of apprenticeships; working with more than one employer, accumulating credit for work done. Surely there’s value too in colleges (with partners if necessary) running a form of apprenticeship ‘clearing’, perhaps combined with a more flexible employer input for SMEs who can’t commit to the whole package.

Both these ideas offer some stability to FE funding as well, reducing rounds of bidding for contracts and micro accountability: Let’s focus on not wasting £1bn on big figure Labour screw-ups if we want to talk accountability.

This is just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Whatever the vision for Wales, its educators need to know what government wants learners to achieve without writing the manual as well.

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Your homework assignment:

The new school curriculum is broad enough to genuinely mainstream vocational content, maybe we are starting to bring some meaning to those words “parity of esteem”. School teachers aren’t experts in vocational subjects and would need to find external help to do this.

A Welsh Conservative Government could offer schools, which can still commit to teaching the new curriculum, the freedom also to specialise in certain key areas of economic demand, a bit like university technical colleges in England.
What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of these two ideas? Please consider the opportunities or otherwise of Further Education in your answer.

Suzy Davies MS is the Member of the Senedd for South Wales West and Shadow Minister for Education, Skills and Welsh Language for the Welsh Conservatives.

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