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Young people’s voices ought to be heard in education reform

The Baker Dearing Educational Trust recently published an independent assessment of University Technical Colleges (UTC), the technical education secondary schools that we support.

The assessment, titled ‘Powering the Engine of Opportunity’ and produced by education think tank ImpactEd included a number of very positive findings about the UTC programme that we are, naturally, very happy about.

However, the most interesting part of the research and the part that has given us the most food for thought is ImpactEd’s work with student focus groups.

UTC inspired student to pursue engineering

During these sessions, students said they wanted work experience during Key Stage 4 to help prepare for more advanced learning, explaining: “If we have work experience now, we’ll be prepared for it in Year 12 and 13.”

One Year 11 student also discussed how her UTC inspired her to go against gender stereotypes in technical fields. Unsure what career path to follow, she reports that coming into a UTC, experiencing what engineering is like and what employee engagement was on offer in the sector “helped me want to become an engineer and show everyone that girls can also do it”.

These focus groups, along with the data from the annual student surveys that Baker Dearing carries out, have revealed an enormous appetite among students for greater employer involvement in education. Students also expressed a strong desire to know more about university alternatives such as apprenticeships.

All of which is good news for technical education providers and has encouraged our efforts to establish a pilot of UTC Sleeves, which would deliver the employer engagement opportunities and technical education curriculum of a UTC within a mainstream school.

Yet, as the focus groups demonstrate, young people have their own views on education and ought to be respected as stakeholders in their own right, independent of other stakeholders such as teachers or employers.

They ought to be directly consulted on education reforms, those that are being planned and those that are already underway. This includes Labour’s promised curriculum review, the Conservatives’ plans for the Advanced British Standard and ongoing changes to Ofsted inspections.

If we do, we’ll find students’ engagement with T Levels is worthy of recognition. ASCL’s new general secretary, Pepe Di’Iasio told this publication earlier this month that he’s not convinced T Levels are the “only answer” going forward. Yet many students think T Levels are the right answer.

Zaeem Basit, The Leigh UTC’s director of T Levels says students there “love” the new courses because they can focus on a subject that they are passionate about. Jannath, who recently completed a Digital T Level there, concurs. Previously studying several different subjects, she switched to T Levels when she realised that it was mainly focused on computer science – and hasn’t looked back.

Industry placements, which many providers recognise the value of but which they struggle to deliver, are also greatly valued by students. Ahana, who studied the Design T Level at Thomas Telford UTC, told us that during her industry placement, she went on site visits and worked on multiple projects, enthusing: “You don’t get to see that in class”.

Young people hold well-informed views on education

My take-away: Government and other policymakers should routinely make use of student focus groups.

Baker Dearing is supporting the UTC Young Women’s Network, a board of female students who have provided a focus group for our external partners to gather feedback on outreach work. This group and the ImpactEd research clearly demonstrate why the government, regulators, representative bodies and think tanks should make greater use of student focus groups in their research and policy development.

They may be surprised by the results, but they will come to understand that young people often have uniquely well-informed perspectives on their own education.

But more than that, they will be giving young people the chance  – one they will genuinely value – to be involved in the decisions that affect their education and their futures. And what better way to ‘power the engine of opportunity’ can there be than to give them a voice?

This article was originally published in FE Week.