Lisa O’Loughlin

Why we should rethink our ideas of educational success

On A Level Results Day, Lisa O’Loughlin, Principal of The Manchester College, discusses why we should rethink our ideas of educational success.

Results day is a celebration of all learning – and it’s about time the nation’s outlook on educational success reflected that.

Year after year we see A* students jumping for joy after securing the grades they needed and heading off to university with beaming parents in the background. Don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant achievement and one to be applauded. But shouldn’t we heap equal praise and publicity on, for example, inner city students from Manchester who have secured excellent grades through an extended diploma or secured a fantastic apprenticeship with an international organisation?

The vocational students, the dedicated mature students juggling all manner of commitments to improve their lives and the students new to our country who are learning a new and complicated language, to ensure they have a chance in our society, are all winners in the education game and deserve the same level of recognition as the students we applaud for their academic success.

If we accept that education shouldn’t stop at the schools gates, then we need to accept that ‘success’ comes in many forms, all of which need to be showcased equally – and we should demonstrate that, not just locally with our students but nationally and on a public stage.

Results day is an opportunity to look at the myriad of routes and choices students have. Increasingly, we are getting better at explaining the options available to young people and ensuring both students and parents understand the value of technical and vocational learning, but we also need to ensure that outstanding achievements in all qualifications are equally recognised and rewarded.

The demand for apprenticeships alone shows that firms and employers, whilst valuing a degree, also value the alternatives highly - the need for skilled technicians and vocational skills is a key priority for national and local government, employers and all of us in education. With Brexit on the horizon, the technical and vocational skills gap we are all acutely aware of is likely to widen.

As the Association of College’s Chief Executive, David Hughes, stated earlier this week, the CIPD quarterly labour market report provides more evidence of the probable slow-down in EU nationals moving to the UK and the consequent increase in hard-to-fill vacancies, at all skills levels, across all sectors.

Science, technology and the economy are changing at such a speed that automation and robots are now a feature of many industries and professions, and a challenge to individuals keen to enter them - except those which will always require the unique creative, technical or vocational competence of a human. In future, having a degree alone will not guarantee you a job or even a career. Technical, vocational and creative skills increasingly can. So why don’t we celebrate more publicly and collaboratively the success of our students who have achieved the mastery of a new trade or technical skill?

As the principal of The Manchester College, we open our doors to a whole host of students from across all socio economic backgrounds, ages and abilities. Our students may have faced a myriad of issues to simply get to the College gates. Many have overcome adversity to get into that classroom. Others are fighting silent battles that not even their closest friends and inspirational tutors will ever know about. But the one thing that unites them is a belief that education and training is the key to a better life. 

This year, over 83 per cent of our Level 3 technical and vocational students will achieve the equivalent to high A Level high grades.  We’ll be celebrating this locally with our students, but I wonder why we don’t see these achievements recognised nationally, in the same way as A Levels or other academic routes. What are we doing collectively as a sector? Whatever happened to VQ Day?

Colleges up and down the country are educating the country’s future workforce. I believe it is our duty to ensure our students are ready and prepared to fulfil these roles, whichever pathway or qualification they chose to complete and to raise the stakes in valuing the skills they develop equally. It is time we came together to celebrate the achievements of our students in all forms.


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16th August 2018

By Lisa O’Loughlin