The headmistress of a prestigious North East girls’ school has warned teachers not to be “sniffy” about apprenticeships.
Hilary French, president of the Girls’ Schools Association and headmistress at Central Newcastle High School, also said “soft skills” such as resilience, leadership, integrity, confidence, independent thinking and compassion are essential for young women to compete in today’s jobs market.
She was speaking at the Annual Conference of the Girls’ Schools Association at the Hilton Gateshead yesterday.
She predicted a shift away from university as the “automatic choice” and said she believed the “brutal truth” was that universities cannot offer high levels of student contact time.
She said: “Add to this the fact that employers are placing an increasing emphasis on ‘employability’ skills over top university qualifications, and the latest CBI annual survey which shows that UK employers overwhelmingly want more control over training, with qualifications better tailored to their needs, and it’s clear that times are definitely a-changing.
“The number of higher apprenticeships, designed for young people who already have good A-level or equivalent qualifications, shot up by 147% between 2009 and 2012, albeit from a very low base.
“I believe, and hope, that the link between schools and employers will strengthen over the coming years and that there will be an increasing focus on developing employment skills.
“I’d like to challenge independent school heads to embrace these alternative avenues. Parents too.
“There is huge potential in employer training courses and the new types of apprenticeships which are emerging. We must not be sniffy about them.”
Ms French said that, while the weight given to qualifications and exams was “misguided”, she wanted to call on Education Secretary Michael Gove to tackle the lack of young people, women in particular, choosing to take up a career in science, technology and mathematics (STEM).
The headmistress said: “Here in the North East, as elsewhere, engineering firms and businesses in the rapidly-expanding computer gaming industry report a serious shortage in engineering and other STEM-related skills. We are told that there is a growing shortage of engineers joining the workplace – and a dearth of women in those ranks.
“To me, this should be of far more concern to Government than how we examine subjects.”
She added that the Government must also tackle social inequality.
She said: “Businesses report that, although they have no trouble finding bright people with first-class degrees, in many cases they are not articulate and cannot argue or defend a position. Basic life and core learning skills are missing from a worrying proportion of our young people.
“What we really need from Government is a willingness to tackle the social issues that stop children who could do really well from doing so.
“John Major is right to be concerned that what he calls ‘the upper echelons of power’ are dominated overwhelmingly by the independently educated or affluent middle class, and to call for an education system that helps children out of the circumstances in which they were born.
“Here in the North East, I am particularly attuned to the fact that we have the highest local poverty index in the country, at around 30%. If we – the Government and ourselves, as educators – are serious about making the best education accessible to all, we must focus even more on areas of social deprivation and give children real, practical help instead of yet more reform of the examination system.”