What does the Journey to a Million mean for the qualifications of young people?

Bill Watkin, Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA)

Financial pressures will be with us for some time, of course. On the other hand, so will an increasing 16-19 population — with the population of 16-19-year-olds continuing to grow until 2030. This is good news for enrolment and growth, but it also puts a strain on system capacity. Furthermore, more young people, who have experienced lockdown, disrupted learning, increasing levels of poverty and deteriorating mental and emotional health, and who are faced with new and fast-evolving opportunities and challenges, will need more support; a structured and funded framework for Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) is needed.

In times of economic hardship and low funding levels, and even more when coupled with a decline in the student population, there is a greater risk of an unseemly scramble for enrolment, and a reduction in the quality and impartiality of information, advice and guidance, as providers seek to maintain and build their student numbers to protect their funding.

Although concerned here with Level 3 pathways, as more 16 year-olds reach the threshold for Level 3 study, and are faced with an apparently binary choice between A levels and T levels, apprenticeships notwithstanding, it is important not to lose sight of what is available to Level 2 and Level 1 post-16 and post-18 learners, and the support they need, including through transition programmes and other resit and progression routes.

The decisions faced by students

The first of two key decision-making points in education under consideration here occurs at 16. The second at 18. But, of course, the choices available to an individual will be limited by his or her experiences in the years prior to reaching 16 or 18: what subjects did you study in Key Stage 4? How well did you do? What post-16 provision is available in your community?

On the Journey to a Million, this decade’s cohort will be making, or may already have made, key decisions. Their choices, and the information, advice and guidance they receive in arriving at their decisions, become more critical in a more competitive environment. The imperative to enrol students in sufficient numbers, whether at 16 or 18, must not take precedence over the importance for young people to choose what is right for them. An understanding of the economic imperative to address the skills gap, and the keys that will open the doors to career pathways, will help students to make informed choices. But, while government policy and Treasury investment can raise the profile of technical education and certain subject disciplines, it is essential that we recognise the value of the full range of subjects and qualifications available, and the formative pressures on young people from their families and teachers. Technical education at Level 3 is unlikely to become a mass market product any time soon.

And it is important to maintain a breadth in the curriculum. Yes, STEM subjects are important and possibly contribute more to the economy in adult life, but if young people are to make a truly valuable contribution to society, even if they are to be successful scientists, engineers, doctors and technicians, they need to develop their skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and communication, their artistic sensitivities through the arts, their understanding of the world through the lessons of history, and an understanding of their role in a democracy through the study of philosophy, law and politics.

Promoting the full range of options to students

Recent government interventions, including the Provider Access Legislation (PAL), requiring all schools to ensure students are informed about Technical Education and apprenticeships alongside the full range of Post-16 options, and policy-makers’ current curriculum focus on skills, employers and workplace experiences, should have helped to create a climate in which students are made aware of everything that is available to them, and that all pathways are treated equally in terms of esteem and validity. But there is a way to go yet.

Societal and cultural biases continue to place a premium on the traditional route of A Levels followed by an undergraduate degree. Apprenticeships and Technical Education are better understood and have a higher profile than in the past, but too often they represent a really good option...for other people’s children.

Furthermore, schools, the largest providing sector for 16–18-year-olds, have a vested interest in promoting the A Level to University pathway because that is what they are geared up to deliver and that is the route they know. If we are to deliver true parity in information, advice and guidance (IAG), support services at 16 and 18 need to have a good knowledge and understanding of all the options and their implications.

But let’s not be bamboozled by the energy and noise around technical education and other alternative pathways. Over half of Level 3 16–18-year-olds do A levels; over 80% of them do A levels, Applied General qualifications (e.g. BTECs) or a combination of the two, with Higher Education being their preferred destination. Only 9% do a purely technical qualification at Level 3, and that is unlikely to change significantly even with the introduction of T levels. So, the proliferation of pathways does not change the fact that the vast majority of young people will do classroom learning in a sixth form curriculum, whether at school or college. Better IAG and parity of esteem are needed and would make a difference, but the (im)balance is unlikely to change in the near to mid future.

Choices post-18

The second key moment occurs at 18. But did a student’s educational experience in the previous two years keep the appropriate options open? Were the right A Levels in the right combination available and, if so, were they chosen? Was there sufficient focus on independent study skills, self-regulation and metacognition to maximise the chance of surviving, even thriving, at university? Were the extra-curricular opportunities and enrichment, that are so important for a rounded sixth form education, on offer? Were they available to all, irrespective of socio-economic background? Were all students, whatever their situation, supported to develop a sense of belonging, aspiration and entitlement? Were they encouraged to break the mould, to reach for the challenging destination?

Future support

In conclusion, as the UK population of 16–18-year-olds grows, and as a greater proportion of that population reaches the threshold for Level 3 study at 16, and for Higher Education at 18, and as UK universities continue to attract overseas applicants, the competition for Higher Education places will increase. In the face of greater competition, young people will look for more support: support in the curriculum, both taught and untaught, and in qualifications, so that at each step in the journey, options are available, the keys to open doors have been on offer; support with mental and emotional health, with resilience, with life skills and a spirit of independence, with a belief that anything is possible. They’ll also need guidance, specialist support — choice of subject; matching degree to career prospects; choice of university; matching destination to both course and student; support with, as needed, the application, the UCAS statement, the reference, the interview, the pre-U test.

The burden for providing all this support largely falls on staff in schools and colleges. There are other resources, of course, including local employers and higher education institutions (HEIs), or the use of alumni to inspire current students in thinking about their next steps and their careers. The use of online platforms can extend our reach, such as can be seen at St Paul’s College in Hong Kong, where the use of a digital alumni strategy has enabled them to transcend geographical barriers and involve overseas alumni. But the daily work is most likely to be shouldered by teachers and specialist support staff.

The loss of specialist experts in a careers advisory service, the ailing Local Authority services and the overwhelmed NHS have seen a significant increase in the number and nature of demands on schools and colleges. Faced with more people needing more support, of a more complex nature, and with new pathways and qualifications to get to grips with, and an unpredictable and evolving labour market, schools and colleges need a better structured and better funded framework that will ensure they have the capacity and expertise to help all our young people who deserve nothing less than the best.

Bill Watkin

Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA)

After a long career in secondary schools, Bill spent ten years as a Director at SSAT, leading its work on the academies programmes, identifying and brokering the support to meet early academies’ individual and collective needs.  

While at SSAT Bill was also occupied with government policy initiatives and developments, considering their implications for schools, particularly in the context of curriculum, assessments, qualifications and accountability. 

Since 2016, Bill has been Chief Executive of SFCA, the sector body for all dedicated 16-19 sixth form providers and the voice of sixth form education. 

Bill has published a French text book and a number of titles about big issues in education. Bill is Chair of a Multi Academy Trust.