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On 26th May 2016, Digital Leaders North East debated the future of skills-based education. The focus of the evening’s salon was preparation for the launch of the region’s first University Technical College (UTC), but attendees reflected on wider issues for the North East’s employers and education leavers. This is not the first time the topic has been addressed, or been the subject of a Digital Leaders salon; the UTC initiative itself followed concerns raised two years ago, and there have been several attempts over the years to raise the aspiration of the future workforce.
The challenge for Digital Leaders now is this: will the UTC be a monolith, standing alone, or will it be a seismic event, unleashing a tsunami of change? The result is in our hands.
Context and background
The region needs more jobs. We have long relied on the public sector, and this is not sustainable. Our private sector strengths are clear: automotive, manufacturing, life sciences, and technology. It makes sense that the region’s educational institutions should deliver work-ready young people to these industries, however schools are bound by the National Curriculum to deliver a syllabus which does not take into account regional variation in opportunity, and is more focused on meeting targets than preparing for the workplace.
The University Technical College will be a school for 14-18yo (Years 10-13) which has the chance to move away from the National Curriculum. It aims to deliver an education in partnership with employers. Longer school days, no homework, internships during holidays. Exams seen as part of the whole not an end in themselves. Specialist project work filling 60% of the timetable at 16-18. It is a brave and detailed vision, based in part on systems running successfully in Germany, Austria, and other European countries. It harks back to the days of Technical Colleges, and relies very heavily on momentum and traction in the professional community. The latter is a key challenge: however, as the salon demonstrated, there are many wider issues to address.
The Leap of Faith
When the UTC opens its doors, how many children will be motivated to leave their friends and peers behind to study there? How many parents will support their children to take a different route for these crucial school years? How many employers will step forward?
The UTC needs to ensure that all parties learn the things they “don’t know that they don’t know” in order to make informed decisions, and build traction and community support for the concept. It was suggested that a series of YouTube videos telling businesses, parents and students how to get involved (similar to the ‘how to do a TED talk’ model) would be a practical step, alongside more traditional avenues such as access to youth leaders and apprenticeship programs.
The UTC cannot operate in isolation, rather as part of the regional education model roadmap, inspiring feeder schools, developing competition for places, and co-operating with other 14-18yo providers.
There is a need to develop transferable skills, because not every child will continue on the same path, and this will reassure parents. Attitude, Aptitude and Adaptability are as important as technical knowledge for work-readiness; the teaching of these through work experience in y12/13 at a challenging Newcastle school has paid dividends for those youngsters. For students who move on to higher education, there is also the very real headache of making sure that the UTC’s project work translates into UCAS points for university entry.
Mending the process of teaching
There was significant criticism of the existing process of teaching, from all sides. In April, Digital Leaders North East debated whether skills were obsolete before teaching had finished: the conclusion was a resounding yes, and was followed up with collaborative action to change the process and focus of tech skills delivery in an existing college. The UTC is also trying to break the obsolescence mould with a disruptive educational model.
One of the biggest barriers to making teaching relevant has been the hand of civil servants in the curriculum. Professionals who know the subject and are willing to teach it are blocked from doing so because they are not qualified teachers. The UTC’s vision of recruiting older staff, tapping into the pool of professionals who have already walked the walk, is a good one. Increasingly, kids supported at home have knowledge above and beyond that of the teacher in the classroom. Technology is moving too fast – faster than public education – and private initiatives, whether it’s parents at home or, increasingly, employers funding their own focused training academies, are creating a two-tier system of skills delivery.
It is vital that the UTC breaks down this barrier to demonstrate success, however it cannot and should not stand alone. The partnership between the UTC and university must feature a tight framework with consistent engagement, rather than the ad hoc interventions that characterise existing employer involvement. The inertia of academia is notorious; the salon hoped that the University might learn lessons from the UTC, but feared this would be a long road.
Action for aspiration
Every Digital Leader in the room had at some time encountered symptoms of the widespread lack of parental support, and the derisory attitude that often meets success. The tale of an apprentice mocked for taking a text book home was not seen as unusual, and more tales emerged during later discussion. This need to engage and inspire the wider community is something that has been addressed time and time again in debates, discussions, learned articles, and failed initiatives.
Lack of support from parents is likely to stem from a combination of ignorance of learning, and different goals and perspectives. Should parents be included in the learning environment? Invite them into the classroom, help them to learn and to support their child’s onward learning.
Addressing their goals and perspectives needs a clear definition of the WHY behind loyalty to the region and aspiration to succeed. In business, selling your product does not depend on your vision: it depends on the consumer’s. There is pride in the region, but very little awareness of the opportunities. When a leading firm pushed for regional recruitment, candidates were surprised they had an office here, despite being established for decades. Here is a challenge for Digital Leaders: help this region find its WHY.
How can we move forwards?
There was overwhelming support for the concept of the University Technical College, a desire to overturn traditional teaching in response to change, and recognition that there are wider concerns for the region. We have the choice to continue talking, or take action. If we simply keep talking, the blog of our 2018 salon on regional recession will make grim reading.
How can Digital Leaders and their networks:
Our future is in our hands.