We need to immerse young people in the rich and exciting culinary world if we want to keep them in the hospitality industry, says Gary Hunter
A shifting technical education and training landscape has always been challenging to navigate for those of us who toil in the field of further and higher education. This includes navigating the network of various ‘gateways' and ‘end-point assessments' in our apprenticeship system too. For our hospitality businesses it must be a chilling scenario trying to fathom different qualifications, awarding organisations, standards, levels, degrees, diplomas and certificates.
Nonetheless, as the UK further education system has suffered with significant underfunding for at least 15 years, we can view the combined impact of this with falling student numbers in many colleges and universities as they rationalise their approach to culinary and hospitality training. An increasing number of institutions have strategically removed or cut back their provision, citing the increasing costs of maintaining expensive courses for fewer students.
Parents and schools are the often-cited barriers to recruitment to these courses, and hence the industry overall. Generally, parents have a knowledge gap about the hospitality industry, often owing to what is viewed on TV as a form of entertainment. Coupled with this is the peer pressure that the A-level qualification route brings to 16-year-olds via schools who should have their students' best interests at heart, but have increasing sixth-form enrolment targets to meet.
In my view, this is the most significant pinch point that subverts recruitment into our industry and our colleges. At an early age, young people seem to like the idea of becoming a chef, but as they grow up their ambitions change – partly because many young people have few opportunities to develop a depth of food knowledge and experience wider gastronomy.
The pivot point is the need to invest in food teaching at school, and this is where we need to focus our careers education for the hospitality industry; to maintain that early interest and build on the concept of gastronomy beyond the high street and offer a rewarding, diverse and creative opportunity for all in this industry. But once we have new students with us, what are the options for them to study the professional qualifications that really should be perceived as a ‘licence to practice'? After all, we are playing a significant role in the diet and health of the public.
At Westminster Kingsway College our Professional Chef Diploma, a three-year, full-time course, has been running since the early 1900s. Nonetheless, we adapt and make crucial changes to this qualification, and other courses that we deliver, based on feedback directly from the industry – through our Sectorial Group Strategy and via our strong relationships with associations such as the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, the Institute of Hospitality and even the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Amendments are made on a yearly basis to ensure that our students' skills are fit for purpose alongside meaningful work placements in each year. I know of no national qualification in this country that has the flexibility and connectivity to make changes such as this, especially as we have seen how our profession has adapted so well to create new income streams and adapt their skillset during lockdowns.
However, we will soon be faced with T-levels, new courses that follow GCSEs and are equivalent to three A-levels. These two-year courses are being developed in collaboration with employer groups so that the content meets the needs of industry and prepares students for work, further training or progression to higher education.
T-levels will offer students a mixture of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job' experience during an industry placement of at least 315 hours (approximately 45 days).
It is too early to suggest that this new curriculum will not meet the diverse and changing scope of this industry, or that it will inspire new students, but already the concept of hospitality training has been removed from this draft, which is surely a major mistake.
There is little doubt that we must collectively inspire more people to train and enter this industry, but at the same time we must have a culinary and hospitality education that meets skills challenges with the professional updating this industry absolutely needs.
Gary Hunter is deputy executive principal at Westminster Kingsway College
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