Technical education and parity of esteem

The chancellor of Cambridge University, Labour peer and former science and innovation minister David Sainsbury examines the UK’s need for technical education reform.

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The system of technical education in this country today is a disgrace. It is over a hundred years since the first report which highlighted the fact that our system of technical education was not as good as that of Germany, and in comparison with other countries we are no better today. This is not due to the performance of FE teachers but to an appalling record of policymaking by successive governments.

The further education sector has seen almost continuous change over the last three decades. Since the early 1980s there have been 28 major pieces of legislation related to vocational, FE and skills training, and no organisation set up to oversee technical education has lasted more than a decade. During this long period, no-one has sought to learn from the many countries in the world that have excellent systems of technical education.

As a result we have today a serious shortage of technicians in industry at a time when 366,000 of our 16-24 year olds are unemployed. I can’t believe that none of these young people have the ability and motivation to train as technicians if given good opportunities to do so, and I think we should see these figures as a measure of our failure to provide our young people with a good system of technical education.

Also at a time when there is an increasing number of exciting and well-paid jobs for technicians, by 2020 the UK is predicted to rank just 28th out of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills.

Why is our system of technical education so poor and why is it held in such low esteem? If one looks at the systems in countries which provide good technical education for their young people, it is clear that three things are required for a good system of technical education. They are, firstly, a national system of qualifications which works in the marketplace. Technical qualifications will only achieve parity of esteem with ‘A’ Levels when young people know that if they work hard and get a good technical qualification, take it to an employer, and he or she will give them priority over someone who hasn’t got a qualification.

Secondly, it is obviously necessary to have well-qualified teachers with well-equipped and up-to-date facilities to deliver excellent education and training programmes. Thirdly, one needs a system which shares the cost of training young people, and does not allow employers to get a competitive advantage by poaching well-trained young people from their competitors.

In the past we have not had any of these three foundations of a good system of technical education. Young people and employers have to try to understand a chaotic system of 13,000 qualifications, many of them of doubtful value. At the same time we have not invested sufficiently in either our FE teachers or their facilities. And, finally, we have not found a way of sharing fairly the costs of training, or stopping the poaching of trained staff.

Hopefully this is now all going to change. Last year, I chaired a panel of experts tasked by government to make recommendations for measures that would not only improve, but transform technical education in England. The government accepted all our recommendations, in the Post-16 Skills Plan last summer, and officials are currently working to implement them.

Learning from what we found in other high-performing countries, my panel recommended that young people should be given a choice at 16 between two equally high-quality options: academic and technical. Transition support should be available for people not yet ready to access either option at 16, and bridging provision should be available for people who later wish to transfer between options.

The new technical option will be structured around 15 routes to skilled employment, with titles such as ‘Engineering & Manufacturing’, ‘Legal, Finance & Accounting’ or ‘Catering & Hospitality’. This structure of routes will encompass both apprenticeships and the new T-level qualifications. This alignment of the apprenticeship pathway, which includes a significant off-the-job component, and college-based pathway, which includes a significant work placement, is the framework seen in almost all high-performing countries and brings many advantages. Learners can more easily transfer between pathways, colleges can utilise the same staff and equipment to teach both, and the system can flex throughout economic cycles: when apprenticeship opportunities dry up in a recession, students can still train for their chosen occupation in college.

The new T-levels will sweep aside large numbers of low-quality qualifications which currently attract public funding. For each cluster of occupations with similar knowledge and skills requirements, there will be just one T-level qualification, based on content and standards defined by employers. We estimate there will need to be around 40 T-levels across the routes. The reforms will see awarding organisations being able to compete for the right to develop and deliver a technical qualification rather than offering competing qualifications. This represents a significant shift, but one which is necessary if we are to address the market failure evident in our current system.

Colleges will undoubtedly face challenges in adapting to the new system. The new qualifications will require demanding standards of teaching and assessment to ensure they maintain the confidence of employers. So, work needs to start now to ensure all colleges are suitably supported and prepared. The first stage of this should be for government to help local areas (LEPs, Combined Authorities and City Regions), and the colleges within them, to understand what the new technical education system will mean. This includes the need to strengthen links between colleges and employers, plan the specialisms to be focused on within the 15 routes (reflecting local labour market needs), and identify the teaching expertise and facilities they will require to teach the new qualifications and where deficiencies lie.

Following this needs analysis, all colleges will require access to high-quality professional development, on a route-by-route basis. It is an international truism that the quality of any education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. If we want these reforms to herald a new era of world-class technical education, England needs to upskill its technical education teachers, and this work needs to start now.

Of course, adequate funding is also a prerequisite for success. I welcomed March’s Budget announcement of extra investment in technical education. But it would be a mistake to allocate this extra money equally across all qualifications. Some routes will be more expensive to deliver than others and the funding-per-student should reflect this. We should move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a system that funds study programmes according to what they actually cost to deliver.

Funding levels should be set according not only to requirements for any specialist equipment, but also acknowledge that training programmes targeting different occupations need to be of different sizes. An electrician apprenticeship is twice the size of a butchery apprenticeship; why should it be any different for the college-based pathway? Moving to such a differentiated funding model would also help government deliver its industrial strategy, by providing a straightforward way of incentivising skills training in areas of most need.

All those that play a part in the system must rise to the challenge. Employers must commit to articulating what their industries – not just their companies – need, and support the next generation of employees by offering work placements alongside apprenticeships. Colleges and other training providers must redouble their efforts to deliver on employers’ needs, and support students with clear and up-to-date career guidance. And ministers must ensure that the reforms described in the Post-16 Skills Plan are enacted in full, resisting any temptation to cherry-pick those aspects that are easy or cheap to deliver.

We have a great opportunity to make technical education in England the match of any in the world. A straightforward, easy-to-understand system of qualifications, based on employer-developed standards, will give our young people, regardless of background, the opportunity to work hard and build good careers and lives for themselves. It should also give us the best possible opportunity of producing the technical workforce our country desperately needs.

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