Marilyn Tew takes a look at what the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training has to tell us about whether current strategies will improve the education on offer to teenagers.

The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training’s 2005-06 report addresses all aspects of the subject in England and Wales. It does this by examining the relevant research literature as well as through engaging with teachers, lecturers, employers, training providers, voluntary bodies, policy makers and learners.

Positive determination

The review paints a positive picture of just how far people are determined to:

  • establish a more inclusive system
  • build stronger and more effective partnerships between different providers.
  • broaden learning and curriculum experiences
  • provide opportunities that suit all young people.

It also describes an increased interest in listening to the voices of students and the general commitment to:

  • starting where young people are
  • opening dialogue with those who are disengaged
  • balancing power in young people’s favour.

Contradictory aims

These positive aims risk being undone by the potential contradictions between the stated aims of education for 14- to 19-year-olds. One aim is to ‘help all young people to realise their potential’: another emphasises the importance of making young people more employable both for their personal sakes and for the sake of society. The effect is to reinforce the tensions in 14-19 provision between academic and vocational routes to qualifications, as well as the relative status and roles of different education providers.

Policy busyness

The review states that there has been ‘an unprecedented amount of policy initiatives but rather little change’. This is related to there being too much ‘policy busyness’ with:

  • national targets
  • new qualifications
  • short-term funding
  • new regulations.

Such a combination is, the report says, unlikely to produce significant improvements to the education and training system as a whole.

Partnership

The 14-19 agenda is predicated on partnership working, with the learner at the centre of a collaborative yet personalised system. But these aspirations have not been translated into practice. There has been too much competition between providers, and not enough collaboration. Tensions have arisen between:

  • funding for schools and funding for colleges doing similar work
  • general education and vocational education
  • assessment for learning and the more formal assessment systems associated with an accountability agenda.

The 14-19 plan proposes a transformation of the qualification system for 14- to 19-year-olds with the objective of creating a system capable of offering a new set of curriculum and qualification opportunities truly built around the needs and aspirations of each young person. The emphasis of reform is on creating systems and a new set of curriculum qualification opportunities in the hope that new assessment structures will prove to be instruments of change, working to personalise both the system and the learning; yet there are no clear mechanisms to achieve either.

Academic fixation

One of the main problems in transforming the qualification system for 14- to 19-year-olds is the second-class status attached to vocational learning and qualifications. We are a society that is still fixated on academic learning and consequent assessments in the form of GCSE and A-level examinations. This approach may be turning some students away from education rather than drawing them in. An over-emphasis on this form of assessment often makes access to higher education problematic for those holding vocational qualifications.

Alongside a systemic emphasis on academic learning, there are few opportunities for young people to learn new skills and to gain qualifications outside of education and training. Most 16- and 17-year-olds who enter the job market end up in low-skilled, poorly paid jobs that rarely provide training opportunities.

Partners

The review advocates widening the range of partners involved in 14-19 education to include youth services, voluntary bodies and independent training providers. This will help, it says, to develop strongly collaborative local learning systems. If providers of 14-19 education and training can make this happen, it will be a major step forward in creating provision that works.

Whatever the final delivery and assessment structures that England adopts, there is a pressing need to ensure that all 14- to 19-year-olds have access to appropriate education and training, whether alongside or separate from employment, that equips them for a satisfying, fulfilling and productive life in the 21st century.

The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training: Annual Report 2005-6 can be downloaded from www.nuffield14-19review.org.uk

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