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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

A vital role for further education: Educating extra-ordinary young people

Ann-Marie Bathmaker, Professor Emerita of Vocational and Higher Education at University of Birmingham

This blog post focuses on the overlooked and precarious middle in the English education system: further education and the young people who participate in it. In Helena Kennedy’s words, further education does ‘everything that does not happen in schools or universities’. Here, I focus on education and training for extra-ordinary young people. By extra-ordinary, I refer to:

Social class background, and intersections with gender, race and other forms of disadvantage, have and continue to mark the educational pathways and life chances of this middle group in the education system (Avis & Atkins, 2017).

A key problem for these ‘ordinary’ young people in the public eye is that they are not spectacularly ordinary (Skeggs & Wood, 2012). They provide no shock headlines. They are not the over half a million young people suspended or excluded from school nor the 11 per cent of NEETs who have disappeared from education, employment and training. Yet they comprise around half of young people who are regularly overlooked and underserved by the twin pillars of school education and university.

I describe them as extra-ordinary to emphasise that these ordinary lives matter. A vital role that further education has performed for them is to address the fallout from an education system dominated by assessment rather than learning (James & Biesta, 2007). Assessment cultures that select and sort the best from the rest do not enable ordinary young people’s learning, as shown in a systematic review of the impact of summative assessment tests on students. When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, favouring students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences. Being labelled as failures reduces the chance of future effort and success.

‘When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, favouring students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences.’

What is further education for in the 21st century?

Government policy in England tells us that skills to support industry and increase productivity are the ‘core purpose’ of further education. The top priorities are advanced technical skills, English, maths and digital skills to keep pace with technological changes in employment. Yet there are compelling arguments for thinking about the content and purposes of further education differently and more expansively. Research for the OECD (Elliot, 2017) shows that AI is close to reproducing the proficiency of most adults in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving with computers, so that more of these forms of education will not suffice to address the challenges of the future (Schleicher, 2012).

Phil Brown and colleagues (2011) emphasise that even without the developments in AI, investment in higher-level cognitive skills does not automatically lead to good jobs in the 21st century. Learning no longer equals earning. Instead, there are winners and losers, where ordinary young people are regularly on the losing side.

There are credible proposals for how to address the wider economic and employment context, such as the adoption of a Fair Work agenda by governments and job quality as a political goal at national level. But equally important are proposals for re-imagining what further education is for, beyond an exclusive focus on work and employability. McGrath and colleagues (2022) propose that further education can be a way to support human flourishing across economic, environmental and social domains. Grainger and Spours (2022) see further education and skills development as part of an integrated system of working, living and learning within a locally oriented social ecosystem model. Their model would support all sections of local populations to learn, to achieve and progress. Brown and colleagues (2020) consider further education in a globalised context. They emphasise that education is central to a civilised future in which people of all ages have the possibility of thinking through how they can make a living and a good life when confronted with the labour market and environmental uncertainty and political turmoil that now surrounds us.

All these ways of thinking indicate the vital role further education can play in the lives of extra-ordinary young people. This vital role is about much more than teaching the immediate skills needs identified by industry. It is about making a life as well as making a living. And it is about enabling young people to become proactive and critical citizens in a turbulent and changing world.


Avis, J., & Atkins, L. (2017). Youth transitions, VET and the ‘making’ of class: Changing theorisations for changing times? Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 22(2).

Brown, P., Lauder, H., & Ashton, D. (2020). The death of human capital? Its failed promise and how to renew it in an age of disruption. Oxford University Press.

Brown, P., Lauder, H., & Cheung, S. Y. (2011). The global auction: The broken promises of education, jobs, and incomes. Oxford University Press.

Elliott, S. (2017). Computers and the future of skill demand. Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing.

Grainger, K., & Spours, P. (2022). A social ecosystem model: A new paradigm for skills development? G20 Argentina 2018.

James, D., & Biesta, G. (2007). Improving learning cultures in further education. Routledge.

McGrath, S., Powell, L., Alla-Mensah, J., Hilal, R., & Suart, R. (2022). New VET theories for new times: The critical capabilities approach to vocational education and training and its potential for theorising a transformed and transformational VET. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 74(4).

Schleicher, A. (Ed.). (2012). Preparing teachers and developing school leaders for the 21st century: Lessons from around the world. OECD Publishing.

Skeggs, B., & Wood, H. (2012). Reacting to reality television: Performance, audience and value. Routledge.