BIG DEBATE: Whether exam pressure comes at a cost and if vocational training is the answer

Vocational training course run by Circle-Old Ford Housing

Vocational training course run by Circle-Old Ford Housing - Credit: Old Ford Housing

Pressure to do well in exams has seen east London emerge with top grades in A-levels and GCSE. But there is disquiet among some fearing for youngsters falling out of mainstream education. The University of East London sees higher academic education as a right fore everyone, not just an elite, that should be protected for the good of the wider society from spending cuts. But a major housing organisation, Circle-Old Ford with its social housing from Bow as far out as Rainham, is urging schools and colleges to “ease up” and steer those who don’t do well in the classroom towards more vocational training to prevent them falling through the net:

Circle Old Ford Housing's Rick Leven and UEL Vice Chancellor Prof Nora Ann Colton

Circle Old Ford Housing's Rick Leven and UEL Vice Chancellor Prof Nora Ann Colton - Credit: Archant

Rick Levene, construction tutor for Circle-Old Ford Housing, explains why vocational training is the answer...


This is the time of year that can often feel like ‘make or break’ for many young people. It might seem like the end of the world for pupils who don’t get the A-level or GCSE results they want.

Mainstream education and the traditional academic route won’t always be right for thousands of youngsters. Academia and the disciplinary classroom framework might not suit their needs and can often leave pupils feeling like a square peg in a round hole. This can lead to truancy and other behavioural issues.

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We are in the unique position at Circle Housing Old Ford of seeing first hand how some who fall behind in school can succeed in an alternative learning environment.

We run vocational courses at our construction centre in east London for 14 to 16 year olds who are at risk of exclusion.

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Last term, for example, we helped a pupil who was falling behind in class and had become disillusioned about his career prospects.

Sammy’s school attendance started to suffer. But he was able to learn practical construction skills such as painting and decorating which have built up his confidence and transformed his career prospects. We could see early on that he had the ability with his hands — but it was just a question of unlocking it in a safe environment that stimulated him.

Sammy started to enjoy the work and would often continue in the workshop after the session ended.

The more challenging academic subjects like his English and maths are addressed on the course by embedding them into the construction work which he had found a passion for.

Next month he enrols on a painting and decorating course in Hackney, potentially leading to a career in construction.

Sammy’s tale is not unusual. In the last year alone, we have helped 2,000 young people like Sammy into training courses or apprenticeships in east London.


But Prof Nora Colton, University of East London’s Deputy Academic Vice Chancellor, explains why we should all have a stab at university education...


It seems odd today that we would even question why someone should go to university. It’s the result of a recessionary environment and a government under pressure on budgets, which translates into a view of higher education as “a luxury” and not worth public investment.

This attitude takes us back centuries to when higher education was only for an elite in society. The privileged believed the cost of education should be borne solely by the person benefitting from it who would use it to improve their life.

But this attitude didn’t recognise the wider value of education. I strongly believe higher education contributes fundamentally to society and the public good.

We see a large number of intelligent people in east London in higher education for themselves and their children to improve their lives, not just for the interest and reward learning brings.

Attending university is not just about youthful school leavers. In a world where success is built on knowledge, we must all be lifelong learners. Higher education is not just a place to acquire skills, but a place that helps make sense of our complex and changing world.

Even more so today, it is a place where we often shape and refine our views about civilization and the way we engage in society.

I would argue further that higher education provides the public rather than the individual a benefit of contributing to the wellbeing of us all.

Social mobility, often linked to higher education, is not just about getting a better pay-packet, but gaining knowledge, skills and values that contribute to the good of society as a whole.

The question today should not be whether someone should go to university for that first degree, but how to make it possible for all of us to return many times in our lives to higher education, to gain that deeper understanding of ourselves and our evolving world.


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