OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on a fragmented post-16 education system

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice in March 2020)

Around this time of year, UCAS releases figures to show the percentage of 18-year-olds going to university. As we go to print, the constituency figures have yet to be released but Bristol South has been at the bottom end of this table with just 16 per cent of school leavers going to university.

It’s not the only aspect of education where Bristol South fares badly. The latest GCSE figures reveal a shocking divide between GCSE attainment in the city and the country. In Bristol South, 49% of students attending state-funded schools got maths and English GCSEs at grade 4 or above last summer, compared to 72% in Bristol West. The England average is 69.4%.

When you look at the bigger picture for education, from early years through to further and higher education and SEND provision, it’s clear that the problem is systemic. While it is important to tackle issues in each area, the overall picture will not change unless we look at education as a whole.

My focus as an MP has been on post-16 education and apprenticeships as a way of helping people secure quality jobs and careers. Last month (Feb), I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for City of Bristol College’s new Advanced Skills and Construction Centre near the South Bristol Skills Academy, the venue for my annual South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair. Both have an important role to play in improving access to quality apprenticeships for people here in Bristol South.

I started the apprenticeships fair four years ago after noticing a real gap in Bristol South for events like this: bringing key partners together – City of Bristol College, Bristol City Council and the DWP – to link people up with the opportunities available locally. I will continue my work in this area, but apprenticeships alone cannot redress the balance.

Years of chronic underfunding has left schools and colleges struggling. There are a range of identifiable issues around transport, how easy and affordable it is for young people to get to school or college, and the (lack of) support available during the transition between school and college.

Ultimately, it’s far too fragmented – responsibility for different areas sitting with different stakeholders -the regional schools commissioner, local council, the government and multi-academy trusts. No one person or authority owns this problem, and as such, it’s not being properly addressed. This has to change.

I will continue to raise the issue in parliament to shine a light on the problem. And my focus will be on bringing together all bodies to address this locally. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about education, please contact me via the details below.

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