This morning did not start exactly as I had planned. My car decided to lose power on the M6 and eventually came to a grinding halt. Not the best start to the day but – never fear, I am a member of the so-called ‘fourth emergency service’ and they promptly responded to my call for assistance. As I sat waiting for the yellow van of salvation, I couldn’t help but think how much we rely on people with essential skills that are simply not taught in our schools.

Up until a few months ago, I taught Humanities subjects at a comprehensive secondary school. While I love my subject dearly, I must confess that I have never been rescued from a near-crisis by someone quoting the terms of the Treaty of Versailles! I am being flippant, of course. I fully appreciate the depth of knowledge, critical thinking skills and cultural appreciation that can be developed through effective Humanities teaching, but it does make you question why we place such heavy emphasis on the traditional, academic subjects in our schools when so many young people are likely to progress into practical and vocational careers that require a completely different skills set.

In 1948, the Butler Education Act introduces the Tripartite system into British schools. This saw the introduction of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns. An examination sat in the final year of primary school would determine a child’s future career path; Academia; O-levels, A-levels, University and the professions or a ‘hands-on’ practical route into a skills-based career. Whilst I certainly do not think we should return to this system, I do look back at old newsreel footage of students learning such skills as electronics, mechanics and technical drawing at school in the 1950s and wonder why we ever moved away from teaching such subjects in our secondary schools.

What seems to happen currently is that students are fed a ‘curriculum diet’ based largely on the E-Baccalaureate – regardless of their future plans or career aspirations. Young people are expected to learn and memorise reams of material which will be assessed in an epic month of examinations at the end of year 11. These examinations do very little to test the students’ transferable skills – they are far more a test of memory – yet so much seems to hinge on the outcome of these exams. The results of these exams will dictate what these students will do next; be it A-levels, BTECs or work-based training, but for many students that will be the very last time that they ever need to think about quadratic equations, the development of medicine through time or the collected works of Wilfred Owen. For many students, they will start their vocational college courses and much of their high school education will become a distant and irrelevant memory.

Surely it would be a more effective use of young people’s time and education to develop a greater range of vocational and transferable skills at an earlier age? Why do so many schools conform to a ‘one size fits all’ curriculum when this is clearly not the most appropriate model for so many students?

This week I attended a local network meeting facilitated by our regional LEP. We were told the stark truth; in this region alone there will be 230,000 skilled vacancies emerging over the next 6 years as an ageing workforce retires but only 4% of young people are leaving education with the appropriate skills to fill these vacancies.  Meanwhile, 5,000 graduates leave the local area every year to take their skills to London, Manchester and other major cities.

What was refreshing though, was to see how many schools, businesses and training providers attended this meeting with the intention of working together to tackle this issue. It is vital that young people are leaving our education system ready for the world of work with a portfolio of skills that are relevant to their local labour market needs. Schools and businesses must be encouraged to work more closely to develop these skills from a much earlier age.

For some learners, the opportunity to pick up more vocational or skilled based learning post 16 is too little, too late – they are already disengaged from learning even though they probably had the skills required to be outstanding electricians, plumbers, digital managers, plant engineers or mechanics. Just like Luke, who used his skills to get me back on the road this week! Cheers Luke!


Rebecca Clarke is Head of Education & Programmes at The Inspirational Learning Group who deliver a wide range of Enterprise Events and Competitions in schools across the UK, including the UK’s Largest Enterprise Competition for Schools – The National Enterprise Challenge.

For more information call 01785 550160 or visit https://www.inspirationallearninggroup.co.uk/