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.

OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on post-16 opportunities for young people in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice November 2019)

Every year, I work closely with City of Bristol College to put on a Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in Bristol South. And every year, I chat to young people keen to pursue a career in construction. When there is significant house-building in Bristol South, it makes sense to link these two elements.

We need skilled construction workers to build these houses. We need decent job and training opportunities for local people. Now, the two have come together with plans for a new Advanced Construction Skills Centre at the South Bristol Skills Academy in Hengrove.

Following the Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair in February, I spent time looking at the artist’s impressions on display at the City of Bristol College. It’s something I’ve long supported. Seeing a similar centre at Weston College earlier this year brought home to me just how valuable the Construction Skills Centre will be to people in Bristol South.

After meeting with the minister and regional authority in support of the college’s bid for an Advanced Construction Skills Centre, I was delighted to learn that the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership is investing £6 million to help make this happen. Planning permission has now been granted and work is due to start in the New Year. The centre itself will be in the heart of some of the city’s house building programme in Hengrove. An impressive 3,500m2 building, it will house state-of-the-art training facilities.

Due to open in September 2021, the centre will offer training during the first three years to 850 students enrolled on a range of courses, from apprenticeships (including Higher Apprenticeships) to university courses and vocational training for employees.

Closer links between City of Bristol College and the University of the West of England opens up opportunities for students to gain degree-level qualifications in Bristol South. This is particularly important as Bristol South remains at the bottom of the table when it comes to percentage of 18-year-olds going onto university – with just 16% of school leavers making that move into higher education.

The centre will provide a range of vocational courses for young people as well as career development for people already in the construction sector who might be looking for more senior roles. It is this breadth of provision which allows each person to find the pathway which best suits them.