DfE to run awareness campaign as part of ‘major’ reforms to higher technical qualifications

A new public awareness campaign to boost the popularity of higher technical education is to be launched by government as ministers confirm plans for “major” reform in this area.

As first announced by former education secretary Damian Hinds in 2018, the Department for Education is planning to overhaul qualifications at levels 4 and 5.

Following a consultation, current education secretary Gavin Williamson today confirmed that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will be approving new and existing higher technical qualifications, and awarding them a quality mark, starting with the digital sector from 2022.

The idea is to create a “high quality” technical option for students to progress onto after T-levels or an apprenticeship, particularly in skill-shortage sectors like construction, manufacturing and digital.

The DfE said the quality of the existing 4,000 qualifications at levels 4 and 5  – such as higher national certificates and diplomas that sit between A-level and degrees – can be “variable” and it can be “hard for students and employers to find the ones that are right for them”.

New higher technical qualifications will therefore only be approved where they “provide the skills employers need” and meet “employer-led occupational standards”.

To increase uptake, the DfE is developing a “new public awareness campaign” to be launched in autum next year.

The department was unable to say how much their communications strategy would cost or what it would involve, but a spokesperson said it will “showcase the benefits and the wide range of opportunities that studying a higher technical qualification can open up and making sure students get the right information, advice and guidance to make informed choices”.

The campaign will be run in partnership with employers and careers advisers.

The announcement comes days after Williamson pledged that the upcoming White Paper for further education will lead to a reformed “world-class, German-style” system.

Williamson said today: “For too long we have been training people for the jobs of yesterday instead of the jobs of today and tomorrow.

“Employers are struggling to find the computer programmers, engineers, electricians and technicians they need, and students of all ages are missing out on the high skill, high wage jobs that higher technical education can lead to.

“The measures I have announced today will boost the quality and take-up of these qualifications to help plug skill gaps, level up opportunities and support our economic recovery.”

A “national approval scheme” for the new higher technical qualifications will be delivered through the IfATE.

Under the plans, awarding bodies will submit higher technical qualifications to IfATE’s employer-led route panels, which already oversee the approval of standards and T-levels, for approval.

The submissions will be managed through a phased application process, much like was done with T-levels.

In the first year, the focus will be “exclusively” on digital qualifications, leading to occupations like network engineer, cyber-security technologist and software developer.

Qualifications will be compared to new digital standards at level 4 and 5 which have been subject to a recent IfATE route review of quality, and will be available on the institute’s website “shortly”.

The first qualifications will be available from September 2022.

Attention will then turn to qualifications on the construction and health and science routes which will be available from 2023.

The IfATE said it will provide full details of the approval process to interested awarding organisations and universities when the window for submission of qualifications opens in September.

Where level 4 to 5 technical qualifications fail to meet the institute’s kitemark, the DfE said they will “take action” by reducing the funding available to them from 2023.

Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education said: “Covid-19 has really focused public attention on the quality of training at all levels, and the role it can play in economic recovery.

“We are looking forward to starting our work on higher technical qualifications to help provide the skills our economy needs.”

Matthew Percival, the Confederation of British Industry’s director for people and skills, said: “Putting employers in the driving seat will give them confidence that courses on offer meet their needs.

“With four-fifths of employers expecting to increase higher skilled roles in the coming years, offering clear progression routes through higher technical qualifications will be essential to creating a sustainable and inclusive future economy.”