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Hands on

The idea that the best way to learn a trade is through practical experience may seem obvious, but it is one that went out of fashion in the UK in recent decades. An academic, university education was seen by successive governments as the key to getting a foot on the ladder to wealth.

But things have changed. High graduate unemployment has led to political leaders looking at vocational training, and at countries such as Germany – seen as a leader in using vocational training to create a highly skilled workforce – with envious eyes.

For Professor Alison Halstead, the change cannot come soon enough.

“The whole of our school education system is aimed at sending kids to university. Parents think that if their child doesn’t go to university they are a failure, children think the same – the whole system is based around the idea that everyone has got to go there. But increasingly we are seeing graduate unemployment and a lot of employers – Deloittes, BT, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Rolls Royce – are actually going and recruiting more apprentices than graduates, because they want to embed the skills that they need.

“We are phenomenally behind where we should be. If you look at places in Europe – like in Switzerland – something like 70 per cent of youngsters will move into a technical or vocational route into work at around 14 or 16, and they have the lowest level of youth unemployment across Europe. Youth unemployment is high in Britain – with a large number of young people not in training – and it has been academically driven.”

The last few decades have seen a decline in the number of apprenticeships, combined with targets for 50 per cent of young people to go to university. But the difficulty faced by graduates – particularly those in arts and humanities – has led to apprenticeships taking on a fresh appeal. Halstead says that some companies advertising apprenticeships have seen ten times the number of applicants relative to the number of available places. The question then is how to make more spaces for vocational training available.

“I think you have to help employers create them, and you have to make the route to creating them really easy and straightforward – which is particularly important for small and medium-sized businesses. But a lot of companies are really keen and they are looking at this emerging talent pipeline, but I think there could be more incentives and it could be made easier.”

She continues: “Government can influence behaviour across the board because they could make it mandatory to do some work experience at some point during the year for kids aged 14. They could make it mandatory to take a practical qualification, which would lead to more people pursuing it as a route into work. It is important for today’s young people to really understand that there is a huge array of options for work, and to catch some of the excitement of it and why studying something vocational is worthwhile.”

Part of the problem probably stems from the industrial closures in Scotland and the north of England during the 80s and 90s, with young people being led to perceive their choice as being between university and low skilled work. Germany is heralded as a kind of utopia for technical training, but if the same system existed in the UK, there are no guarantees it would translate to equally attractive jobs. There is a perception that the UK doesn’t build much anymore, but is that accurate? To what extent is the problem one of perception?

Halstead says: “Coming from the West Midlands, we have seen major car manufacturing plants closed – and that creates a strong regional sense of negativity around manufacturing. But at the same time there are huge opportunities arriving through places like Mazak, in Worcester, the biggest machine manufacturer in Europe. And they want to get as much talent as possible but they struggle with that perception. Companies just don’t know where they are going to get talent from. So it is about perception – so if industry can collectively get the message across that these people are needed things would be much better, but it is a huge challenge.”

Is this messaging that Halstead talks about – along with the inability of recent governments to sell apprenticeships as a viable option to young people – also the reason that women are so underrepresented in STEM subjects?

“I think that comes down to parental influence and it is a historical problem. Twenty years ago, there was research on why it was just 10 per cent women in STEM, and it found that the key was in single-sex education. Now that was decades ago but we have closed down single-sex schools – they are going co-ed. The single biggest factor is single-sex education, because it provides an environment where anything is possible. Girls and women pursue the activities where their passion lies, what they are good at. But the minute you get back into a mixed-sex environment, however equal one thinks one is treating the group, they actually revert to boys doing science and the practical bits, and girls not. Yet meanwhile, the stats show that the offshore oil and gas sector has just six per cent women. There are huge opportunities, they don’t all need to go offshore, it is a diverse sector that just needs talent.

“Once women get into the companies there is no problem, it arises before that. The problem is in the number of women doing Highers in STEM subjects and apprenticeships, and then graduates being persuaded to stay in that area. The companies are not putting women off, it is a matter of getting women into the pipeline.”

It is the education pipeline that now concerns Halstead. Clearly a firm believer in the idea of learning through doing, as Pro-Vice Chancellor of Aston University, she is in a position to put these ideas into practice.

“One of the things that people don’t know about is that 80 per cent of our programmes at the university have a year in industry and we aim to make that 100 per cent. In 2012 we created the Aston University Engineering Academy, which is for 14-19 year olds. We were excited about putting a university ethos and employer-led curriculum into young people’s education.”

She continues: “We organise things around the business day, so school starts at 8:30 and three days a week it finishes at 5. They wear business suits and there are a small number of staff to students. The curriculum is really focused, at 14 they just do English, maths, chemistry, physics and biology, electronics, systems and control engineering – with lots of practical stuff. They also do a work placement, which is just like university. It is assessed as part of the curriculum and I think that is the secret ingredient, because the students can rub shoulders with these people and they get excited about what is happening. Success to us is that people get jobs.”

There is no doubt that a child who has been exposed to maths, chemistry, physics and engineering in a practical environment from the age of 14 will be well placed to pursue a career in a related field. But what about those who want something different? And if the kids do not do art, music and drama, is there not a danger that even those who do want to be engineers or chemists will miss out on a rounded education?

“That is always the question I get and personally, I don’t agree. Somehow we are quite happy if younger children don’t do chemistry, biology and engineering, as long as they are still doing English, history and geography. We are happy to drop STEM subjects – but we are a technological society. As long as they are doing English, they do actually have an option on languages. But we do not force people to come to our school and in a way it is about aptitude for learning. At 14, kids can go to a performing arts academy – and they won’t do physics, chemistry and engineering – isn’t it the same? In Birmingham there are 76 schools, this is one of them. It is about diversity in the sector, this is a niche for people who are passionate about science and engineering, just like how a performing arts academy feeds a different passion. But it would be wrong if every school took this model.”

She continues: “I have always believed in the importance of contextualising learning – that is something we have become much more aware of in the last ten or 20 years. In our academy any child should be able to say, ‘why am I learning this?’ because it sure as hell frustrated me at school. There should be a point to things and we want to give people a real experience. Many of the challenges in teaching apply at every level – whether it is primary school or university – [and they] are much the same and I think increasingly that is about using real-life examples. Put apprentices in with young students and they will naturally acquire knowledge. I can’t be a role model for young kids – they would think I’m a wrinkly old git, and they’d be right – but put in a young apprentice and they will have a real affinity there.”

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