The government welcomed the Sainsbury Review recommendations, but will they deliver on implementation, asks Catherine Sezen?

From a college perspective, there is a lot to be positive about in the Sainsbury Review of Technical Education, and the government’s response to it in the Skills Plan.

These documents, published in early July, outline a new structure for technical education centred on 15 occupational routes leading to higher apprenticeships or higher technical education at levels four and five. There is a welcome focus on the crucial importance of skills to the economy, and college-based routes into employment. Schools will be required to allow other education providers access to young people as part of information, advice and guidance.

Could this be an opportunity to consider contextualisation and employment-related content?

There is also a glimmer of hope that the current arrangements for English and maths will be reviewed. Could this be an opportunity to consider contextualisation and employment-related content?

But there are questions. Perhaps the most fundamental is funding. In his introduction to the Skills Plan, the then-minister for skills, Nick Boles, outlined the unequivocal support for Lord Sainsbury’s recommendations “within current budget constraints”.

The panel recommended a review of funding for technical education in light of evidence from European and international models, where students study at least twice as many hours a week as they do in England.

Messaging about the technical option is important. The concept of 15 occupational routes provides much-needed clarity for parents, carers, students and employers. There must also be a cultural shift in the way technical education is perceived in the country; we must demonstrate that the combination of GCSE, A-level and university is not the only route available.

There will be more detail on the routes themselves in the government’s implementation plan, which is due to be published before the end of the year. What will the common core at the current levels two and three leading to a specialist option look like?

We still require information about what the transition year will consist of and at whom it’s aimed. We need to know how courses at levels four and five will work in practice and where the study will take place. Will it only be in career colleges or in FE colleges with specialisms?

Some of the 15 routes are apprenticeship-only, but few 16-year-olds get apprenticeships; there is a particular question over how this will work for protective service apprenticeships in the police and fire service.

Oversight of technical education will sit with the Institute for Apprenticeships, but how will that work in practice? Who will sit on the expert panels that will oversee the technical standards?

Perhaps the most fundamental question is funding

The Skills Plan refers to a review of applied general qualifications in art and design, business, and performing arts, among others. These applied ‘academic’ subjects sit alongside A-levels in the future plans, rather than within the technical route. They meet the needs of young people with a particular vocational passion, but who might wish to go onto higher education and/or work in these areas. These qualifications cater for over 140,000 young people a year and we await the outcome of the review with interest.

There is an emphasis on more substantial work placements rather than work experience, but some colleges are already struggling to meet the requirements for study programme placements in areas such as construction and health-related occupations for reasons of health and safety and confidentiality.

Finally, possibly the most contentious issue is the concept of a single awarding organisation or consortium for each technical qualification. This could lead to greater consistency and transferability and support understanding of the qualifications, but how and when will these crucial decisions be made? We should know by the end of the year when we see the implementation plan. For the next couple of months, however, it is a waiting game; after that it will be all hands on the college deck.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, chair of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, will be speaking at the Association of Collegesí Annual Conference and Exhibition (15-17 November 2016)

Catherine Sezen is senior policy manager for 14-19 and curriculum at the Association of Colleges



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  1. Like you I think much of what is in the skills plan makes sense but I’m sad to see the report by Lord Sainsbury quote statistics for the number of Technical qualifications, which are based on pre-2015 reform. We don’t have thousands of technical qualification, that reform has been done at much time and expense and with the involvement of employers, and what is now on offer is ‘fit for purpose’. Are we really asking Awarding Organisations to throw good work away in place of yet another ‘reform’?
    Apprenticeships and Technical reform should always have happened hand in hand but they didn’t, so the question has to be how we can bring them closer together. The 15 routes are not all encompassing; lots of Industries have been left out. I also question the wisdom of closing competition amongst Awarding Bodies for Technical Qualifications – why is competition wrong in Educational Assessment but not everywhere else? There should be pressure to innovate in qualifications, assessments and service design, without competition why bother. I hope the Apprenticeship Institute, when formed, will be able to find pragmatic solution to implementing he skills plan before even educationalists lose heart.