29/05/2015 09:11 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 06:59 BST

Will 2015 Be the Year of the U-Turn in Vocational Education?

Last month McDonald's UK launched a new campaign to promote 'soft skills' backed by entrepreneur James Caan. The campaign intends to promote skills such as communication, interpersonal and teamwork capabilities in a UK-wide scheme and aims to engage employers encouraging them to get more involved in the development of these softer skills. Today, there is a growing concern about the lack of such skills in young people, especially when they enter the workplace. As educators, we need to focus on developing work-ready young people with the right attitude and the right skills.

For many years vocational education has been stigmatised as only suitable for the 'less bright', and for those that needed to prepare for a specific trade. This is because vocational education directly develops expertise in techniques related to technology, skill and scientific technique to span all aspects of the trade. However, there are plenty of examples where the vocational route is just as good for the individual as university and in many cases a better suited approach, especially for those who want to pursue, for example, a career in STEM and need a practical hands-on approach rather than the traditional academic one.

At UTC Reading we want it to become the norm for young people to choose between an apprenticeship or university - the traditional path of school-college-university-job isn't right for everyone anymore and both parents and young people need to know that there are options. I am determined to change this perception. In order to do this, I strongly believe that vocational courses need to be rigorous and high quality, so they are no longer seen as a second class option. This means improving the quality of the courses and teaching, and the businesses/industries supporting apprenticeships. At UTC Reading, which focuses on computer science and engineering, our students get ongoing career advice by being immersed in our partners' businesses allowing them to gain 'real-life' experience. Additionally they are offered internships with industry partners and often work on projects that are implemented into everyday business, so they derive a lot of pleasure in seeing the outcome.

The latest Hays Global Skills Index 2014 indicates that, across the globe, organisations continue to struggle to find employees with the necessary skills and training for the roles that they have available. One of the recommendations coming out from this report is that businesses need to partner with education authorities to create education systems that ensure all countries are producing students with the skills that closely align with what businesses need. This is exactly what we are doing at UTC Reading. In addition, the 'Thames Valley Skills, Education and Recruitment Survey' sponsored by Hays and Activate Learning undertaken in 2014 also stated that 89% of businesses felt that affiliations between business and education help to increase skills in the workforce. Furthermore, a huge majority of companies (80%) believe that colleges can develop work-ready skills in young people by working more closely with business.

We are seeing a shift in perception from companies too, who are now starting to see the benefits of vocational education and are either partnering up with academic institutions and/or developing apprenticeship schemes. At UTC Reading we have an enviable list of industry partners including Microsoft, Cisco, Network Rail, Peter Brett Associates, Fujitsu and Autodesk. We focus on project based learning and this means that students labour on projects in a 'hands-on' way from start to finish, working daily/weekly/monthly with many of our industry partners. One of the main advantages of project based learning is that it integrates knowing, doing and creating together. While students learn elements of the core curriculum, they also apply what they have learnt to solve specific problems to produce sustainable results.

In order to overcome the current skills shortage and provide young people with both soft and professional skills that companies are looking for, it is essential that vocational education becomes something that young people and companies alike think of as a route to take them far in life, not just a way to get them off the streets. The main goal of education is preparing students for life and the real work world. And, in my opinion, this is the direction that education needs to go. As educators we should move away from the traditional learning environment where teachers lecture and expect to have everyone's unquestioning attention. Instead, we need to prepare students for a world that now needs so much more than just academic skills, particularly when looking at STEM careers.

So now is the time to ask ourselves if we are witnessing a U-turn change in the role of vocational education and what we can all do to really leverage this and establish the vocational route as the one that will allow young people to gain real work-ready skills and, as a result, a brighter future for all.