Skills versus Qualifications

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I attended an interesting debate last week regarding UK skills policy – specifically how to ensure that young people leave school with the skills employers need. It was one of those things where you’re ready to give all the answers, but when you get there you realise everyone else already knows the answers too. Just nobody is doing anything about it.

And who can blame them? It’s a problem much bigger than any of us.

The setting for the debate was rather apt, given the subject. Beamish is an open air museum that recreates life in North East England 100 years ago. Travelling to the meeting location on an old fashioned tram, we passed the pit village where the school, moved brick by brick from nearby East Stanley, provides a model of education in the Victorian era.

In those days, manual jobs were as much a feature of children’s daily lives as they were in the classroom. Alongside the “3 R’s”, practical subjects such as woodwork, baking and needlework were taught in school. At home it was expected that children would undertake housework and chores on a daily basis from an early age. While school was already compulsory at that time, many left between age 12 and 14 to start work and earn money or help to run the family business.

Practical skills have all but disappeared from the modern curriculum. There is little time for them in a system focussed on only one outcome – not skills, but qualifications. We recognise, anecdotally at least that the traditionally academic route through university isn’t for everyone. Yet our culture continues in it’s attempt to force everyone into the same mould, inevitably leaving those who are unable to conform excluded and branded as failures.

While it is no doubt a good thing to open up the potential of a university place for everyone, to make it in essence compulsory is a mistake. The degree has unwittingly become the minimum entry criteria of employers who little understand the constantly changing education system.

The lack of alternatives (or the stigmatisation of alternatives) coupled with the removal of compulsory work experience and careers advice, on top of the requirement to stay in education longer means that many young people have no opportunity to find out what they are good at and little clue of what the world of work is actually like. Our teachers do an amazing job within those constraints, but they don’t understand the world of work either.

I could say that I don’t expect things to change with the general election approaching etcetera, but I’m not at all optimistic that things will ever change. Yes it’s all very well placing more emphasis on outcomes and destinations after education, but without more fundamental changes performance isn’t going to improve.

There isn’t a simple fix but ceasing to confuse qualifications with skills would be a good start.

Keep the debate going – let me know your thoughts below

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