If the prime minister is serious about skills, he needs to take these agreed actions from our latest roundtable, writes David Phoenix
The prime minister’s speech on further and higher education this week and the forthcoming FE white paper present a huge opportunity to grow post-16 technical education.
But growing technical education requires local and national change.
In 2019 we launched LSBU Group which is made up of two secondary schools, one FE college and one HE provider, London South Bank University (LSBU). We work closely together to deliver high-quality technical education across the group.
Our partnership offers students easier opportunities to transfer between technical, vocational and academic pathways; and we actively encourage them to take advantage of the wide range of courses run throughout the group.
On June 22, LSBU hosted a policy roundtable, chaired by former education secretary Damian Hinds, to discuss how we can strengthen post-16 technical education. We were joined by Department for Education colleagues, two universities, two FE trade bodies, six education think-tanks’ representatives, four awarding bodies, two business groups and a training-provider body.
There was wide-ranging consensus on what is needed to grow technical education.
First, we must focus the English post-16 technical system on the needs of the UK economy and students, rather than cutting and pasting a system from Germany or elsewhere.
Second, greater collaboration rather than competition is needed between post-16 education providers. In particular, the roundtable called for the reform of the deeply siloed UK education system.
This particularly affects the 60 per cent of learners who do not follow the one clearly mapped pathway – GCSEs to A-Levels to university. The funding can discourage schools from allowing pupils to transfer to other perhaps more skills-oriented provision (for example, from an academy to a UTC) and schools hold on to their “most able” pupils in sixth form, pushing them towards pre-defined routes (e.g. bachelor degrees at university). Provision needs to be much more closely knitted together, working for the benefit of students, not institutions.
Third, we must resolve the often “disputed territory” between colleges and universities over levels 4 and 5 courses. Many FE colleges have small levels 4 and 5 cohorts and face financial challenges that affect course content, quality and learner progression. Some universities fail to differentiate between standalone levels 4 and 5 and degree programmes.
We must resolve the often ‘disputed territory’ between colleges and universities over levels 4 and 5
To resolve this we need more collaboration between FE and HE institutions.
The complex quality assurance regimes at levels 4 and 5 also need simplifying. For example, a level 4 Higher National Certificate taught at universities is quality assured by the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, whereas a Higher National Certificate taught at a college is quality assured by Ofqual and Ofsted. The additional cost and complexity makes this a difficult set-up for universities and colleges.
The fifth point is to make it easier for students to move between standalone level 4, level 5 and degree level. If a college delivers level 4 courses without clear local pathways to level 5 and 6, this can prevent students from progressing.
Our LSBU Group approach would not suit every institution, but it has clear benefits for learners and may provide a model for other institutions.
But we can’t do it all locally. The government must make maintenance loans available for all level 4 learners so all those studying high-quality courses at this level can receive support for living costs – not just those on a degree, but those doing a higher apprenticeship, level 4 diploma or level 4 NVQ too.
Our final, and seventh, point is there must be a government register of designated level 4 and 5 provider institutions, enabling them to apply for additional funding. This would strengthen technical education by increasing resources needed to deliver highquality personalised learning.
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson said FE colleges will “access funding on the same terms as our most famous universities”, but we need clear details on this to be published.
Billions of pounds and millions of jobs depend on growing post-16 technical education. The FE white paper is the perfect place to start.