When it comes to learning, uninformed choice is no choice at all

Wed 21 May 2014

Well it’s that time of year again when students are taking their final school exams and wondering what to do next.  Many of them will have a career destination in mind but will have no idea how to get there.  It’s about time, in the national education system as a whole, that we started pointing people in the right direction.

It may surprise you to learn, gentle reader, that we sometimes tell potential students not to come to Milton Keynes College.  Remarkable as it may sound, we occasionally suggest there might be other options open to them which will better serve their ambition.  The reasons for this apparently selfless approach are simple.  If we suggest study which is not going to be right for the individual concerned they are likely to drop out or underperform and be very resentful about the advice given to them.  What’s more, by being impartial we hope to build trust and be seen by students as “honest brokers,” encouraging them to come back.  I ought to point out that when I say we, I am referring to the College’s IAG or Information, Advice and Guidance team.  I marvel at what they do. 

The most important word to associate with effective IAG is independence.  When a student or potential student comes to talk to the College’s IAG staff they won’t just be given a list of the courses we run and asked to take their pick.  The advisor will take the time to get to know the person concerned and to find out precisely the kind of career upon which they wish to embark.  They will explain to them the kinds of qualifications and training needed to reach that goal and finally discuss the best course through which the individual can follow that career trajectory.

It’s simply tragic the number of young people who come to us at seventeen having spent the previous year at school studying subjects and courses which either leave them uninspired or which offer no obvious route to the career of their choice.  Often, young people take advice from their parents, older brothers and sisters or family friends.  A lot of the time the well-meaning words they receive are not based on a wide-ranging knowledge of the courses available and the best places at which to study them.  This is a particular problem in some schools which have, in recent years, been passed the mantra from government that their job is to send people to university.  Many of those who come to us at seventeen are ideally suited to apprenticeships but end up starting them a year late following twelve months of wasted study, because the IAG they’d been given made no mention of the apprenticeship route.  It’s interesting to note with this in mind that Ofsted has now begun to include an assessment of IAG provision in their reports on schools.

At Milton Keynes College we’ve learnt from experience how important IAG is.  When someone comes to us and they want to be a chef they can be faced with myriad options for study.  The job of IAG is to sit them down and help them choose the pathway which is right for them.  The most recent academic research reveals how important this is.  Firstly, students who understand the direction in which their courses are leading them – that is to say what work or further study a particular qualification will lead to – markedly outperform colleagues who are less clear about where they’re going.  In fact, the more aware group achieves results which are up to 16% higher.  On top of that, if a student is personally inspired by the specific content of a particular course they will also end up with better results.  It’s by no means an exaggeration to say that effective IAG saves public money being wasted on an individual studying the wrong course and quite possibly struggling with it.

It is vital that academic institutions give young people choices not on the basis of the courses they already offer but in terms of those individuals’ needs.  Colleges are designed for and devoted to serving their communities.  If not us then who can you trust?

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