The government should learn from past mistakes and revise its reform timelines so it doesn’t set the sector up to fail, says Kirstie Donnelly

Asking how long it takes to develop and launch a qualification is like asking the length of a piece of string. It depends, among other factors, on whether it is a new qualification or an adaptation, on required teaching and assessment models, and on its expected duration and level.

A better question might be: how long does it take to develop qualifications that are truly fit for purpose – the purpose being to help learners gain the skills needed for meaningful employment and progression? Or, as in the present landscape, how long will it take to develop a qualification that aims to fundamentally change the way we deliver professional and technical education?

The government’s latest skills timeline answers this question. It allows just under a year from selecting an awarding organisation to finalising the content, then implies teaching will begin four months later. 

We can’t afford another Diploma fiasco

In a Whitehall office these timings might seem ambitious yet achievable but here in the real world, they are nothing short of fantasy.

Creating qualification content is not a case of sitting in a room, writing. When you set out to develop qualifications that meet the needs of employers, employers need to be consulted! Professional and technical education must genuinely reflect the latest technologies and practices in industry, but this only happens through close collaboration with employers in the development phase, which takes time.

The behavioural changes required to introduce new ways of teaching and learning must also be considered. Moving from a model of teaching underpinning theory to one that prepares learners practically for the workplace involves a mindshift that doesn’t happen overnight. Practitioners must be convinced of the value of new approaches and additional training and support are needed to embed new content and changes to assessment models. 

And what about the learners? Young people, and their parents, need time to understand the benefits new types of education can bring. The confidence to step away from traditional routes into employment doesn’t happen overnight.

I can say all this with the experience of someone who has been there recently. Over three years ago, well before the current government existed, we began to develop our City & Guilds TechBac 14-19 programme – at the heart of which sit our technical qualifications, designed to give young people deep industry knowledge through meaningful work experience, alongside the skills and behaviours needed by employers. This decision was about making the right investment and being bold in innovation, without any government intervention. 

Current government thinking doesn’t show any appreciation of real timescales or impact

Three years later, after extensive consultation with employers, engagement with the FE sector and a year of piloting, we are half way through our first year of teaching. Even now we still have a long way to go in terms of educating the sector itself, as well as end users. We always accepted it would be a significant investment (over £3 million), and a long-term one (5+ years). 

Current government thinking doesn’t show any appreciation of real timescales or impact and it’s worrying that they seem not to be learning from past mistakes. The sector still recoils fromdiplomas, remembering the well thought-through reform on which government compromised due to pre-election nerves. Then, the risk was mitigated as we still had a fully functioning qualifications market. If current government plans are allowed through, any last-minute U-turns will leave us without a system to fall back on, which would be catastrophic for the sector and the country. 

Professional and technical education really matters. It has the power to transform lives, businesses and economies and if we are to create the skilled workforce the UK needs for the future, our sector has a huge role to play. 

That is why government has to get this right. My plea to them is to look 10 years ahead: be bold, go further than your predecessors, ask for help from organisations like ours who believe the right change is needed but want it to be done properly. 

We can’t afford another diploma or Train to Gain fiasco; we need a healthy skills system focused on developing high quality professional and technical qualifications that are given time to succeed. I urge the government to learn from past mistakes, genuinely work with the sector and revisit its timelines so it doesn’t yet again set the sector up to fail.

 

Kirstie Donnelly is Managing Director at City & Guilds