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11 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:07pm

The power of technical education

How can government, employers and further education colleges work together to deliver the skills the UK needs?

By Ian Pretty

It is no great secret that our national education system is in crisis. Teachers are being forced to do more with less, funding has dried up, and recruitment into the profession has reached a nadir. Different parts of the system are affected in different ways, but the intensity of the crisis is perhaps felt most acutely in further education.

Further education colleges have had to weather innumerable storms: an ever-changing policy landscape and steep funding reductions have created a volatile and uncertain climate. The further education sector is sometimes overlooked: it does not enjoy the prestige of schools and universities and it is not well understood by those outside its orbit. Yet its importance cannot be understated. Further education provides a lifeline to people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get an education and improve their lives. Colleges serve a spectrum of learners from young people to adults, whilst working together with employers to train the talent that will power key sectors of our economy. 

The purpose of further education becomes even clearer when we consider the wider context: the UK is facing a skills crisis of historic proportions, vital sectors of our economy are struggling to attract the talent that they need, and Brexit as well as our low productivity levels have only amplified these challenges. The supply of highly skilled talent is a critical concern for many employers, but the uncertainty surrounding Brexit could impact the supply of lower skilled workers too. And whilst other developed countries like France and Germany have well-developed systems for apprenticeships and technical education, the UK is very much behind the curve.  

All this means that a new approach to technical education is needed to give learners a genuine alternative. Many young people are not well served by our current education system which has inculcated a systemic bias towards academic education as the only viable route to secure long-term and sustainable careers. What needs to be overcome is this cultural bias that technical education is only an option for “other people’s children.” Reforming this system is a critical national priority, and colleges will have a pivotal role to play.

Collab Group, a membership organisation of 37 large further education colleges, has been working with the consultancy firm PublicCo to think about the key forces that will shape the future technical and professional education landscape. The introduction of a new set of reforms which include the apprenticeship levy, the introduction of new T-level qualifications and Institutes of Technology could provide the basis for a radically improved technical education system. But for these reforms to work, it will be crucial that all parts of the skills system are working together, and this will require the development of new and innovative partnerships. Colleges, with their strong community links and curriculum expertise, have the potential to be key integrators of this new system.

This future landscape is also shaped by several key contexts which include the Industrial Strategy, Devolution, Higher Education reforms, Brexit and Income sources. Each of these factors will have a major influence on the environment in which technical education is delivered. Taken in combination, they will require greater local integration and partnerships across all parts of the skills system. Larger colleges and college groups will be uniquely placed to respond by harnessing their scale and depth to respond to the skills needs of employers. 

But for this to happen, colleges will need to change. FE has sometimes been described as the “everything else” sector: their purpose seems less clear than schools and Universities. In the future, colleges will be required to focus on distinct specialisms that respond to local skills needs. They will need to work in collaboration with universities and other skills providers to provide learners with clear progression routes into employment. 

Colleges are already delivering outstanding technical education for learners and employers, in many of our towns and cities. We recognise that the college sector needs to continue to improve and to strengthen key capabilities which will provide learners with the kinds of education options that our society and economy needs. There is a powerful role for leaders in the sector to work together with government and employers to highlight how colleges are making a positive difference to the lives of learners across the UK. 

The challenges ahead are considerable, but the role of further education in supporting leaners and communities cannot be denied. Colleges will be key actors in promoting a wider cultural shift to change the perception of technical education. Too many learners are being filtered into the higher education system when it is not in their best interests. The graduate wage premium is collapsing, and current levels of student debt are unsustainable. The task is not just convincing learners, but also their parents, that technical education can provide the kinds of opportunity that will advance social mobility and improve life chances.

Collab Group hopes to start a conversation about how government, employers and further education colleges can work together to create the kind of skills system that we need. These publications are a starting point to present an ambitious vision for further education and how it can be achieved.

To read “The Future Landscape for Technical and Professional Education” click here. To read “What Will the Technical and Professional Education Provider of the Future Need to Be Successful?” click here.

Ian Pretty is the CEO of Collab Group.

Collab Group is a forward-thinking membership organisation which represents leading Colleges and College Groups who collaborate, at a local and national level. To find out more visit our website

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