• Colleges week 2012

Welcome to Colleges week, 11 - 18th November 2012. But what is colleges week and what do students get out of it? We asked these questions and more to Ben Verinder, Communications Director at the Association of Colleges and here's what he had to say...


What is the aim of Colleges Week?

As well as being a celebration of the work of colleges, Colleges Week is a campaign to raise awareness of education options among young and adult students. This year Colleges Week is all about employability and work readiness, specifically encouraging people to get into a college to find out how it can improve their chances of getting into work.

What do students get out of Colleges Week?

This year we have launched a new Facebook application to help 14-18 year olds start thinking about the future. Quizl has been developed in conjunction with careers advice experts from Babcock Lifeskills and is intended to be a first step for young people to help them understand the different choices and options available to them.

The app, which follows a quiz format, takes users through an interactive series of real-life scenarios to assess how ready they are for the future. Once completed, users are presented with a range of impartial options to help them better prepare for the future – from information about how to investigate the best education opportunities to improving their CVs through work experience and volunteering.

In addition, to fit with the theme of work-readiness, Colleges are encouraging businesses and schools to sign up for the Inspiring the Future programme. Inspiring the Future is a free service which will see people from all sectors and professions volunteering to go into state secondary schools and Colleges to talk about their jobs, careers and the education routes they took. The programme aims to recruit 100,000 volunteers from across the working world – CEOs to apprentices, from any size company or sector – to deliver the talks.

By getting more employers into schools and Colleges, we hope a greater number of young people will be able to find out more about the different education and careers routes out there.

A GCSE student is deciding whether to stay in their school's sixth form or go to college instead. What are the benefits of choosing the latter?

Whether they should choose school or college will depend on a range of different factors – what courses they are most interested in, whether they prefer the atmosphere of school or something a bit different, what type of education the school or college provides. The majority of young people do choose to study at college - 853,000 young people aged 16-18 this year.

Colleges generally offer a very wide range of courses post-GCSE by virtue of their size, but the focus will again depend on what type of college it is. Some specialise in A-levels, others vocational education. Some have distinct areas of curriculum expertise such as engineering or marine sciences, others specialise in horticultural or agriculture education.

We know from earlier research studies that when young people choose college the majority do so for very distinct reasons – because of the exam results, the safe and secure atmosphere and the progression into further study (including a higher education course at the same college) or employment.

It’s also worth taking the social side of further education into account. At a College, students are treated as autonomous young adults, not school children, which can be a breath of fresh air for many young people.

Let's say that a GCSE student chooses college. What can they do next to make themselves more attractive to employers?

According to research among 85,000 employers conducted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills last year, a lack of work readiness among young people is a real concern for employers. The biggest attribute which businesses feel is lacking is experience of the working world and general life experience. It is therefore absolutely crucial that young people get out of the classroom and in front of employers - whether that's through work experience, taster events or listening to talks from visiting business people.

Colleges tend to have strong links with local employers – the average college provides training to over 500 businesses and two thirds of larger employers who train their staff do so through a college – and they often use these links to help their students access work experience. Of course, many vocational courses involve a work placement as standard, but if yours doesn't, it's definitely worth asking your tutor whether they can help you set up some private work experience - you'll probably be surprised by just how many useful contacts they have!

You should also look beyond work experience to think about other ways to bolster your CV. Volunteering is a great way to get transferrable skills whilst also putting something back into the community. Vinspired specialises in connecting young people with volunteering opportunities and is worth a look, as is the National Citizen Service.

Have you seen an improvement in the level of awareness among young people about their post-GCSE options?

Sadly, not according to research we conducted for last year’s Colleges Week. A paltry 7% of 14-year-olds could name an apprenticeship as one of the post-GCSE options available to them. That’s why we launched the app this year and are promoting the Inspiring the Future scheme, so young people are more aware of the routes available to them.

How can pupils find out what post-GCSE option is right for them?

The first step is to think about what you are good at, what you enjoy and where you ultimately want to end up. Take a look at Quizl, which will help you to think about your aspirations and discover your strengths and weaknesses in terms of career adaptability. Once you’ve done this, you can begin to take steps to make yourself more adaptable and improve your chances of a successful future.

For those young people who enjoy academic study, the educational route may involve A Levels followed by university. For others, who enjoy a more practical way of learning or are keen to earn while they learn, an Apprenticeship or other vocational course will be more appealing.

The key is not to jump into a decision - thoroughly research your options so you can pick the route which is best for you – and to get professional careers advice. The newly launched Government website Which Way Now is a good place to start in terms of online research. You should also try where possible to visit a variety of different education institutions so you can decide which appeals most.

Many pupils feel let down by the lack of careers advice at their school. Where else can they turn?

We’ve been talking about this issue all day on radio and television and almost all the interviewers have their own horror story about poor careers advice - it is vital that young people receive suitable guidance so they can make informed decisions about their future. Research released by the Association of Colleges to launch Colleges Week 2012 has found that both school teachers and parents acknowledge they are struggling to give the right advice to prepare young people for the world of work, with 44% of school teachers admitting to giving a pupil bad or uninformed advice in the past.

You may be lucky enough to have a professional careers advisor in your school – but as our research shows, funding these posts is a big problem for schools. Colleges, by law, have to provide an independent careers advice service so they are a good place to turn to; they have to give you informed and impartial guidance and may well recommend you try non-college options.

Whether or not you already have a clear idea about what you want to do next, we would also recommend contacting the national careers service who can provide a wealth of impartial advice and support. If you live in or around the West Midlands, consider visiting The Skills Show, the UK's largest skills and careers event, which is running at Birmingham's NEC from 15-17th November because it’s a rare opportunity to get face to face advice from a panel of experts.

There's also a lot that you can do to improve your own knowledge of the different options available to you. If you have a particular career in mind, why not contact a local employer and ask if you can do some work experience with them? That way you can find out first hand whether it's the job for you.

What are job prospects like for college leavers? We hear a lot about a tough job market for university graduates, is it not even harder for those coming out of college?

There is no avoiding the fact that in a recession getting on to the first rung of the jobs ladder is very difficult, whatever your level or type of qualification. But we do know that very extensive research – including a massive survey of 85,000 businesses – that work experience is very important in improving job prospects. There is also significant evidence to show that a College education improves young people's chances of a successful career. Colleges take time to develop courses which give young people the skills they need for the work place and as a result employers view 17-18 year old College leavers as better prepared for work than school leavers of the same age.

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