Proud to be showcasing the North East's talent

By Judith Doyle - Gateshead College Principal & CEO

When the BBC called me two weeks' ago and asked to visit our College to showcase the value of high quality vocational skills and qualifications, talking to our students and hearing their stories, I needed no persuading.

Here at Gateshead College we pride ourselves on the quality and breadth of our provision and the brilliant achievements of our students. This morning the team from BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live are here on Campus talking to students and finding out for themselves just how important and vital vocational qualifications are both for young people and adults, and in turn for the regional economy.

As Principal, there’s nothing that makes me prouder than seeing students make such fantastic progress during their time with us and then move on to universities or into jobs where they are putting their great skills and talents to good use. These students represent what I hope will be a growing trend in years to come, as more and more people opt for vocational courses and Apprenticeships, designed to equip them with the skills that our changing economy demands.

The BBC’s visit today is vital because it is an opportunity to let people know – especially young people studying or who have just finished their GCSEs – that whatever part of the country they live in there is an FE College providing so much more than just A Levels. It is a chance for us to make young people, and their parents, think about what the next steps on their educational pathway are and to challenge the assumption that remains all too prevalent, that A Levels are the only option for a great career.

One of the hurdles that further education colleges face is the lingering perception that anything other than A Levels is just second best. The Government is, to its credit, making real efforts to address this. The introduction of the T Levels and the opportunity they will offer to recast the technical pathway in a new light, will play a vital role in helping to encourage more young people to consider these types of opportunities without the fear brought upon by this highly inaccurate and frankly, outdated stigma.

At Gateshead College we specifically design our curriculum jointly with employers, making those students who leave us especially well placed to find employment; if there’s one way to bust the myth that somehow vocational courses have less intrinsic value than their academic equivalents, it is young people seeing their peers go on to take up well paid, highly skilled jobs and secure places at the best universities.

Renewed focus and re-branding of the technical route with the launch of the new T Levels and the structural changes being put in place by ministers are welcome but are not in themselves enough. They must go hand-in-hand with other reforms. There needs to a greater acceptance and acknowledgement by all education providers that a vocational career path is a worthwhile option for many young people and that includes some of the most able. If the students here today had not heard about the College and our career opportunities, they might have continued in their local sixth-form, studying subjects that were not right for them, not even having had the chance to consider the fact that anything other than A levels could be an option. They would have sadly missed these opportunities of which they speak so eloquently and confidently on national TV today.

They are only here because either they found us or because – through our careers fairs and promotional activity – we found them. The truth is that far too many miss out because schools still refuse to let pupils know about alternatives to their own sixth-form and do not highlight the fantastic range of other career opportunities available. Why? Because they are financially incentivised to retain and recruit as many young people as possible to their own organisations.

Today I hope that the young people I am proud to call Gateshead College students will act as a reminder and the best possible advocates for any young person - and their parents - who are watching and will inspire them to get on their laptops and their mobile phones and find out what’s on offer locally.

Colleges like ours provide confidence, skills and an alternative learning environment for young people and equally for adults who are looking to retrain or update their skills. Those students interviewed today are the biggest asset our College has; they are only a few of the many students who are with us at Gateshead College and are thriving in this high-quality, industry specific and modern environment; they are motivated, high-achieving and on track for a great career and a very prosperous future. What a fantastic showcase for Gateshead College, further education as a whole and proof, if ever it were needed,of what can be achieved when the best colleges in the sector, like ours, team up with industry and develop provision that equips students with not only a qualification but also the attitudes and practical skills they need to thrive.

I hope very much that through the medium of national television today, the voices of these inspirational young people and adults are heard and they convince many more at this critical point in their lives, to consider doing the same. It is what they need and deserve and it is without doubt what employers and businesses across our region require.