Lord Sainsbury has been branded an “elitist” after he claimed in a speech to the Association of Colleges’ annual conference that certain jobs, such as retail assistant, should not be counted as technical education.

His comments prompted Mark Dawe (pictured), the boss of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, to hit out at him and claimed he was ignoring “a vast swathe of the population”.

The architect of the government’s skills plan for was first challenged on his definition by host Steph McGovern after delivering a keynote speech that suggested “many skilled occupations… do not require a significant amount of technical knowledge”.

For something to be described as technical education, he said, “a programme must focus on progression into skilled employment” and require “a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills which are valued by industry”.

He insisted that such jobs were still valuable, saying that “this is not for one moment to suggest that these jobs are not important in the labour market” as “they offer large numbers of demanding jobs”.

These occupations “do not require a substantial amount of technical training”, so much as “shorter, job-specific training while in employment”

However, he said, these occupations “do not require a substantial amount of technical training”, so much as “shorter, job-specific training while in employment.”

When asked on stage by Ms McGovern to define what he though did constitute technical education, Lord Sainsbury replied: “If it looks like a rabbit and feels like a rabbit, it is a rabbit.

“We all know what technical education is: a combination of practical skills with a core of technical knowledge which you need to have which enables you to go and do a reasonably high-level technical job.”

This proved insufficient for Mr Dawe, who spoke up from the audience during the subsequent panel session, asking: “I just want to check you really believe that there are no proper skills relevant from entry level to level two in retail, because for me that feels very elitist, and ignores a vast swathe of the population.”

In her answer, Kate Webb, the principal and chief executive of East Berkshire College distanced herself from the peer.

“First of all, we’re not Lord Sainsbury,” she said.

“Technical education involves elements of technical knowledge and technical skill, and for me retail contains a whole set of complex human interactions.”

Giving her own definition of technical education, she said she believed it was “a shame” that vocational education had become “a damaged term”.

She continued: “For me, I think it probably should be technical and professional education. I think technical education is a two-word phrase and something that marries practice in professions with life, because we’re not just educating workers, we’re educating people.”

After the session, a riled Mr Dawe told FE Week that Lord Sainsbury’s speech had been “elitist and not inclusive”.

“Does he really believe no skills are developed from entry to level two in retail?” he asked.

His concerns echoed a question put to Lord Sainsbury by one audience member from the sport and active leisure sector, who expressed concerns that employers in his field were not represented in the 15 upcoming routes he recommended in his review of technical education.

“The exact constituencies of routes will of course very much depend on the panels which are set up,” said the peer.

“It is very important that we restrict this to areas where there are real technical skills required.”

Andy Wilson, chief executive of Westminster Kingsway and City and Islington College also made a trenchant point from the audience, saying: “I’m not sure that it’s the right thing to do to compare a technical level and an academic level, and thinking that you only get technical prestige by meeting a level which is defined in academic terms.”

Summary of Skills Plan

1. Moving to just one awarding organisation for each of the 15 routes. The report said the government will “put in place only one approved tech level qualification…we intend to grant exclusive licences for the development of these tech levels following a competitive process.”

2. An expansion and renaming of the Institute for Apprenticeships, due to be launched in April 2017. New legislation will be needed for it to become the “only body responsible for technical education” and it will be called the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

3. Every 16 to 18-year-old on a college based technical education programme will be “entitled” to a “quality work placement”

4. Clearer divide of choices for post-16 students between academic and technical routes. The plan stated that the government ambition is for 16 year-olds to be “presented with two choices: the academic or the technical option” in the form of these 15 routes covering “college-based and employment based (apprenticeship) education – Colleges and other training providers could be permitted to deliver traineeships for up to a year (a doubling of the current six month maximum) as part of a ‘transition year’ for 16 to 18-year-olds progressing onto one of the 15 routes


Post-16 Skills Plan Timeline:

April 2017 : the Institute for Apprenticeships begins operating

April 2018 : the Institute for Apprenticeships becomes Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

October 2018 : Procurement begins for new technical qualifications

February 2019 : Technical qualifications approved for ‘pathfinder’ routes

September 2019: First teaching of ‘pathfinder’ routes

September 2020 to September 2022 – Phased teaching of other routes


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One comment

  1. Dan Smith

    Well, no surprises here. Mr Dawe represents a constituency that makes a good living by mass selling of low cost low margin training programmes with little content. His members pay their subs for him to defend this, quite understandably. Government’s complicity in this arrangement down the years is also understandable too: a numbers game, a pretence that poor kids are being educated, and the “elitist!” card played when someone opens the lid.