In 2015, it was announced by the former Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker that he would be opening up a number of Career Colleges across the country. Lord Baker argued when he started the initiative that there was too much of a focus on academic education in the U.K, at the expense of vocational skills and work experience required for many careers.
Aside from apprenticeships at colleges, when young people reach the stage of Further Education, there was very little scope for vocational learning before this point. Lord Baker said: “Snobbery killed off our technical schools in the 1950s and vocational pathways were very much seen as a route for the ‘less academically able’.This has led to a severe skills shortage in the UK – a problem which is only going to get worse over the next ten years.”
These thoughts echoed a survey released in 2015. The poll of 1,001 students, by the Career Colleges organisation, showed that 76% felt their schools had trained them purely to pass exams rather than prepare them for the world of work, and 81% believed education should be more career/employment focussed. This is where Career Colleges come in.
As of January 2017, there were twelve of these colleges up and running, with more planned to open. How exactly do they work, what is their relationship with Further Education, and how have they fared?
The colleges deliver a mix of vocational and academic education for 14-19 year olds in order to combat these issues and therefore give them the option of vocational learning before they reach the stage of Further Education. They combine expert teaching with support by industry employers, and with high youth unemployment rates, they specialise in subjects linked directly to sectors with high job prospects.
The colleges are therefore designed to train 14 to 19-year-olds in a variety of occupational subjects, including hospitality, engineering and computer science. Each student chooses a specific career path and receives education in accordance with that vocation (there is scope to change this core path at a later stage if desired). As Career Colleges are demand driven, the subjects taught are determined by the need and opportunities for young people in that particular region of the country.
As stated, the colleges are run with close guidance from employers, with the curriculum of each Career College being designed by employers themselves. They are involved from the inception of the idea for a Career College and commit time and resources to supporting the education and work experience opportunities on offer. The courses are therefore tailored towards the exact skills needed to enter that particular industry, benefiting both that sector and the students themselves.This is combined with some academic learning too, as students are taught in line with national requirements for 14 to 19 education, meaning they learn Maths, English and Science too.
Career Colleges are run by Further Education colleges, as well as employers. Whilst providing vocational skills that can be used to go straight into employment, the qualifications offered also allow students to go onto Further Education in the same way any 16 year old would do so.
Sam Parrett, the principal of Bromley College of Further and Higher Education, said: “We have a distinct plan in place to make sure that students can make a successful transition from college into work and/or further and higher education.” The vocational courses arguably set up students more sufficiently for vocational further education qualifications than GCSE’s would, as well as providing the alternative options of employment or higher education.
The fact that only a limited amount have been set up since the announcement of the plans in 2015 suggests a slow start to life for Career Colleges. The College Careers Trust’s Chief Executive Ruth Gilbert argued the underwhelming figures were due to the disruption that was caused when the post-16 area reviews were announced in September 2015. She believed there was initially a good level of interest in the concept but providers “retrenched” once their attention was redirected by major structural changes that were largely imposed upon them through area reviews.
She said: “We had five [colleges] who paused any planning activity with us, pending the outcomes of their area review.” Former education secretary Lord Baker stated that since 2013
“the FE landscape has changed dramatically” during a “tough period”. He said: “Funding cuts, reforms and area reviews have all put a huge amount of pressure on the sector – meaning that many colleges have not had the opportunity to innovate or invest.” Ms Gilbert said she felt optimistic the situation could improve when the area reviews finished in Spring 2017. A new Career College in Havering opened in October 2017.