When we look to the most promising practice in technical and professional education, we are most often pointed to the dual systems of the continent, or further afield to New York and Nashville, but there is something very exciting happening much closer to home in Northern Ireland.
The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA)’s offices in Belfast’s historic docklands overlook the beautiful Titanic Museum, but this export has the potential to become internationally known for much more positive reasons.
The Entitlement Framework was announced in 2009 and began to be implemented during 2013-15 and it focuses on ensuring that all young people, no matter what kind of school they attend, have access to a wide choice of course options – at least 24 at Key Stage 4 and 27 post 16. Most crucially, at least a third of these options must be ‘general’ and at least a third ‘applied’ (technical) giving young people the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge ready for the labour market.
The CCEA has done some fantastic work over the last few years to design innovative new GCSEs and A-Levels to support the Entitlement Framework and ensure that Northern Irish young people can study areas of emerging economic growth – from learning to run a contemporary craft business to preparing for a job in the growing sustainable energy sector. There are important lessons to be learned here for the development of the 15 technical and professional routes in England following the Sainsbury Review.
An added benefit of the Entitlement Framework is that it requires collaboration because no one institution can deliver the full range of courses required on their own. Even better, this collaboration is taking place not just between individual schools, but across Area Learning Communities and involving not just comprehensive schools but also grammar schools and Further Education colleges. I saw an excellent example in nearby Lisburn coordinated by South East Regional College. This is just the kind of collaboration between selective and non-selective schools that the government is looking for in their recent Green Paper.
As with any education reform, implementation is not without its challenges. The schools market in Northern Ireland is particularly diverse with a high proportion of pupils in grammar schools. Collaboration takes time to develop and has had to be partly funded by government and the new qualifications are still bedding in and growing.
Nevertheless, though it’s early days, the signs are positive, with Northern Ireland continuing to lead the UK in terms of GCSE results, including increasing entries in applied subjects and positive feedback from teachers about how this broad and balanced curriculum is helping their pupils to achieve and progress.
As the CBI and Pearson found in their 2015 Inspiring Growth report, the Entitlement Framework should continue to be examined to see if key elements of this approach could be implemented across the UK. Our very own New Baccalaureate would do just that – giving young people access to a broad and balanced curriculum combining an academic core with technical and creative subjects to create well rounded individuals with the skills employers want.