Reforms will inevitably cause upheaval, but the problems with our current system are too pressing to ignore, says Lord Sainsbury.
No area of public life has suffered so much from poor government policy-making, constant change and under-funding as technical education.
The first report which said that our technical education was not as good as that of Germany was in 1870 and since that time, there have been endless attempts to improve it.
Having started my business career in the personnel department of the family firm, I have followed this unhappy saga over the last 50 years, starting with industrial training boards. To illustrate the rate of ill-thought-out change, in the last 35 years alone, there have been 28 major acts of parliament relating to vocational education and skills training.
If one looks at other countries, it quickly becomes clear that if we are going to have good technical education provision, we need three things: a national system of qualifications that is well understood and works in the marketplace; an effective system of funding students while they are learning; and finally, well-funded facilities and teachers to provide the education and training.
So how do we make this happen? I am not going to go through all the recommendations of the independent panel report on technical education. I encourage you to read it if you have not already done so. But I will describe a few key points.
We recommend that a new set of 15 technical education routes should be introduced. For 16-18 year olds studying full-time, each route will typically begin with a two-year study programme. Each programme will start with a common core of knowledge and skills, after which individuals will specialise towards an occupation or cluster of aligned occupations.
So, for example, in the ‘construction’ route, after a common core, an individual might choose to specialise as an electrician or a carpenter.
Technical education is not a catch-all term for everything that isn’t GCSEs, A-levels and degrees
For each of these specialisations there will be just one publicly-funded ‘tech level’ qualification available. The content of these tech levels will cover the knowledge and skills that industry experts have identified as being essential for the relevant occupations.
The clear organising framework we are proposing will cover all occupations where there is a substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills. Technical education is not a catch-all term for everything that isn’t GCSEs, A-levels and degrees. So, falling outside of technical education are many skilled occupations, such as retail assistant, which do not require a significant amount of technical knowledge.
This is not for one moment to suggest that these jobs are not important in the labour market – they offer large numbers of demanding jobs – simply that to perform well in these occupations does not require a substantial technical training. Instead, shorter, job-specific training while in employment is more appropriate.
By focusing technical education in this way, there will inevitably be some young people who are not ready to access either the 15 routes or the academic option at the age of 16.
Those with low prior attainment, including some with special educational needs and/or disabilities, will need additional support. This group of young people should be offered an additional, fully-funded ‘transition year’ to help them prepare for further study or employment, and this transition year should be flexible and tailored to a student’s prior attainment and aspirations.
Any reforms to the technical education system, especially those as significant as the ones we are proposing, will inevitably cause upheaval for colleges. Some people will say that the last thing the sector needs is more reform, and I do understand this view. But the problems with our current system are simply too pressing for us not to act. I know it is all too easy for me to say that this is about ‘opportunities’ rather than ‘challenges’, but I genuinely think these reforms present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the FE sector.
Further education is the only sector with the expertise to deliver world-class technical education and there is no more vital area of public endeavour. This country faces huge challenges to meet the skills needs of a modern advanced industrial economy, and it is only a strong, appropriately-resourced FE sector that can deliver the technical education we desperately need.
Lord Sainsbury is chair of the independent panel on improving technical education