With youth unemployment rates falling dramatically, employability skills must be at the heart of education in our post-Covid world, says school leader Neil Miller.
In our special and alternative provision schools, students often ask “what’s the point?” during lessons. This is a valid question and deserves a considered response. As teachers, we should easily be able to explain the value of what is being taught and the use it will be to a student as he/she progresses.
Education for education’s sake is not acceptable, particularly in a world where the jobs market is being squeezed and the economy is struggling to recover in the wake of Covid-19.
Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that UK unemployment has risen to its highest level for two years, with youth unemployment taking the biggest hit. In the three months to July, national unemployment grew to 4.1 per cent from 3.9 per cent. Youth unemployment (16 to 24) now stands at 13.4 per cent.
Preparing students for their careers from an early age is vital and this has always formed a central part of our teaching strategy. Our curriculum is focused on equipping students with relevant life and employability skills, alongside academic qualifications, so they can progress successfully to the next stage of education or into a fulfilling job.
Encouragingly, we are not alone in this thinking, as highlighted in the recent Teacher Tapp poll for the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC, 2020). Around 5,000 teachers responded and 74 per cent agreed that “skills like team-work and public speaking will equip pupils to secure a good job in these uncertain economic times”. A smaller proportion, 62 per cent, said the same about good academic qualifications.
Alongside this headline, half of teachers fear a lack of jobs for young people and, as a result of the pandemic, damage to career prospects – which highlights the challenge we face.
It is easy to say what we could do if we had more money. An increased, dedicated careers education windfall would help on many levels, but we (and all other schools) have to work within the confines of our budget, which requires a bit more creative thinking.
Before Covid struck, we had organised work experience placements for all our year 10 students. This is no mean feat, particularly as our students have a range of individual needs, many with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). Yet, this was achieved with the help of a highly motivated careers lead, who has made it her mission to find good opportunities for our students. Good relationships with local employers is key, as is matching the right student with the role and giving businesses confidence that our students will add value.
From year 8, all our students access careers programmes. Pre-Covid, a range of speakers were lined up to come in and speak about various job options. We are now looking at ways we can manage this safely, in line with the government guidance, to ensure that students do not miss out on this important exposure to employers.
This is more important than ever if we are to help both teachers and students understand which industries are likely to thrive in the coming years and where the career opportunities will be post-Covid.
Focusing on progression has a direct, positive impact on reducing the number of students who finish NEET (not in education, employment or training). We are in the fortunate position of being part of an education group which includes a further and higher education college. This direct channel has been hugely beneficial to many of our students, who have been supported onto FE courses at age 16 to 18 – with our careers leader preparing these students for interviews and enrolment. Identifying the right progression pathways for individuals is crucial – understanding their needs, strengths and interests and being absolutely clear that one option most certainly does not fit all.
This year, three of our year 13 students lost Apprenticeship opportunities as a result of the pandemic. This is not just disappointing, but potentially disastrous for these vulnerable young people. However, as a result of our relationship with the college, these students started courses this month with the view to taking up an Apprenticeship as soon as the opportunity becomes available.
All schools – mainstream and special/alternative provision – are having to deal with cancelled GCSE and A level exams. The CEC survey highlighted that almost every respondent’s students were anxious and uncertain over the future choices (98 per cent) and the problems surrounding the exam results this year will not have helped. Our students have special needs so this anxiety has been amplified in many cases and much reassurance has been needed.
Following much uncertainty, we were relieved when the government agreed that students’ final grades would not be lower than their Centre Assessment Grade. This helped to ensure that hard work was indeed rewarded during what has been a highly disruptive time for young people.
However, the fact is that we will continue to support all our students. We have ensured that they have access to progression routes either within our schools or onto college. No young person should have to suffer for a situation that has disproportionately affected them and their future opportunities.
The government recognises these concerns and has committed to supporting technical education in the form of Apprenticeships and Traineeships, which is positive.
However, there must now be a focus on careers and employability skills from a much earlier age, helping young people to understand the value and ultimate aim of education from the outset. Otherwise, we will still be hearing “what’s the point” for many years to come.
Neil Miller is executive head of the London South East Academies Trust.