Skills white paper to propose academic and vocational divide



> Leaked report plan exposes stark choice at 16
> 15 new ‘professional and technical’ routes with apprenticeship or substantial work experience

The first skills white paper in a decade will bring an end to mixed provision and make 16-year-olds choose between academic courses leading to university or a new technical professional education (TPE) route into work, FE Week can exclusively reveal.

The document, which it emerged last week had been delayed, is likely to be controversial for fear the plans will create a two-tier system between academic schools and vocational colleges.

It will reflect the recommendations of an independent panel, led by Lord Sainsbury and set up by the government to look into TPE reforms, which FE Week understands should be published later this month.

Jonathan Simons, head of education for the Policy Exchange group of FE and skills experts, said this could be “hugely significant” for post-16 education — particularly for school sixth forms that rival colleges in many areas.

“It will mean a dramatic change to the majority of schools’ post-16 provision, where they offer a mixture of A-Levels and vocational options, such as BTECs, and may mean some schools pulling out of post 16 provision all together — particularly if the minimum size of 200 pupils is enforced or promoted for existing schools as well as for new ones,” he told FE Week.

FE Week understands there will be 15 TPE routes, delivered either full-time over two years or through an apprenticeship.

A three-year course could also be an option, with the first year preparing students to start on TPEs.

There will be a substantial work experience element within each college-based TPE “pathway”, within its relevant industry.

Bridging courses at the higher levels between academic and vocational pathways is also being considered.

FE Week further understands that each of the 15 TPEs will be overseen by a panel of industry experts, potentially by the new Institute for Apprenticeships.

Professor Lady Alison Wolf, who is part of Lord Sainsbury’s panel, has been a firm advocate of reforming post-16 education and training.

She was highly critical of schools diverting low-attaining pupils onto courses and qualifications not recognised by employers, or accepted by colleges for progression purposes, in her landmark 2011 Review of Vocational Education.

The former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove agreed with her findings, stating that “courses which offer no route to higher levels of education or the prospect of meaningful employment” were “not just unacceptable but morally wrong”.

The department for education said last November: “New professional and technical routes will be created, leading up to employment or degree-level study, which will be as easy to understand as academic routes.”

Skills Minister Nick Boles also announced on April 29 that schools could soon be fined if they sign students up to inappropriate A-level courses that they later abandon.

He evaded a question about the delay to the skills white paper five days later, from Labour’s Gordon Marsden during Commons business, innovation and skills questions, after this was exclusively revealed by FE Week.

The shadow skills minister subsequently requested explanation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) of the hold-up, in a written question that had not been answered at the time of going to press.

The Department for Education and BIS also declined to answer FE Week enquiries over the leaked details of the white paper.

We understand that the government hopes to publish the white paper ahead of EU referendum purdah restrictions which begin on May 27.

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Editorial: Simpler at what cost?

The recent schools white paper was essentially geared at simplifying the system by making them all academies.

It seems that simplification is planned for post-16 academic and vocational learning.

The FE sector’s very own skills white paper will strip away many post-16 qualifications to make way for the introduction of 15 technical and professional education (TPE) routes.

But in an effort to funnel young people into a university or recognised work-related route the government should avoid creating a two-tier system and restricting choice.

It should think very carefully about provision below level two as well as bridging courses between the pathways at level two and beyond.

And in the creation of 15 routes, Ministers could go as far to seek simplification in accreditation, by tendering for a single awarding organisation for each.

It was considered by the previous Secretary of State for the new GCSES and A Levels, but quickly dropped in 2013.

So this might be a once in a generation opportunity to reorganise who accredits TPE routes, but surely the single point of failure problem is unsurmountable?

Nick Linford



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13 Comments

  1. Yet at the same time the push is to disregard the professional qualifications desired by many employers in our sector as the result of Wolf et al’s original input 5+ years ago. Rather than upskilling we are seeing a demise (degradation) of skills within the Networking and Systems Support sectors of ICT.

  2. Who remembers the 14-19 Diplomas? 14 distinct vocational tracks that were offered to 14 year olds as an alternative to GCSE just towards the end of the last Labour Government. I remember that they were actually very well received but because they were rigorous and complex to manage, they were dropped almost immediately when the coalition government removed the learners right to do them.

    Personally, I think that by age 14, the majority of learners know whether an academic route is for them so I wouldn’t wait till 16 by which time many will have spent another two years failing GCSE, I’d start this route at 14 and win back those lost 2 years. Clearly, there would have to be a combined rote for borderline and perhaps this paper describes that route as decisions are made after GCSE results are known.

    Thoughts?

  3. John Smith

    I think the academic route will continue to be the route of choice for the vast majority, that the poor will continue to rack up debts as they pursue this route, that Tory MPs backing the WP won’t be intending for their own kids to go down the vocational route – it is intended only for other people’s kids – and I also think that forcing people to do things (e.g. academisation) is very much de rigeur with these current Tories, which is ironic given how loudly they champion choice.

  4. Andrew Stanley

    So on the one hand apprenticeships are employer-led, but on the other there will be 15 prescribed routes? It seems to me there is a big question as to whether these will be what employers and the professional bodies (which actually set standards)will want. I also suspect that confusion about vocational routes exists mainly in the minds of those who have followed academic routes, not those who have used vocational qualification such as BTECs, which have been around for nearly 100 years, originally as ONC and, at the next level, HNC. While the government may seek to introduce these pathways, it is conceivable that industry and professional bodies may not recognise them. The consultation will be very interesting.

  5. Andrew Cartwright

    Let’s hope we aren’t going back to the Not Very Qualified days of vocational education. With vocational qualifications seen as the ‘problem’ learners route by schools and employers!

  6. This is further evidence on the urgent need for learning and work options to be properly explained to young people and their parents/carers. This is the time when high quality careers education and guidance is most required when there’s major system change underway. Also, workforce capacity building is essential, supported by trained and qualified career development professionals. The overt reliance on employers and volunteers to simply perform this task has resulted in England lagging behind other nations.

  7. Paul Brinklw

    The post-16 sector needs professional management at the course design, development, delivery and validation levels.
    To that end there should be a Qualified Manager go Teachers of Learning and Skills (QMTLS) and a re-introduction of QTLS for all lectures in this sector.

    • This sounds like more top down imposition of standards that are out of date before they are drafted. When Geoff Rebbeck, Fred Garnett and I carried out the Digital Practitioner studies for LSIS in 2011 and DfE in 2013, what we found was that the majority of our respondents were leading the adoption and use of technology working with their colleagues and self-developing craft skills and professional abilities despite rather than as a result of management encouragement. There is an implication here of the inadequacy of teaching and learning and no recognition of the continuing chaos caused by never ending government fiddling with the organisation, curriculum and funding of further education. Alison Wolf’s paper “Heading for the Precipice” 2015 – http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/policy-institute/publications/Issuesandideas-alison-wolf-digital.pdf sets out clearly what needs to be done in the medium and long term and alluding to the inadequacies of the FE workforce will do nothing to change the underlying issues for the sector.

  8. FE Lecturer

    The 15 new ‘professional and technical’ routes will probaly be developed by young Oxford PPE graduates who have never worked in industry, been in a FE college or known anyone who has done an apprenticeship. These bright young things are sure to produce something every bit as successful as previous educational developments introduced by government (Conservative, Labour or coalition).

  9. Nigel Ecclesfield

    It seems to me that the leaked proposals are, perhaps, another attempt to soften up the sector and schools for a set of cosmetic proposals that continue to fund and sustain a status quo where academic routes are seen as the principal route to personal success and are funded disproportionately in comparison to vocational routes. I was surprised to see comment and quotation of the Wolf Review 2011, but no comment on her more recent report 2015, which demonstrated very clearly that the current divide between academic and vocational funding is unsustainable. The details of the proposals from the White Paper you have just released confirm that Government thinking is as confused as ever on vocational education and underneath the White Paper and the recent proposals to create the new national colleges sits a policy to reduce the cost of the sector by restricting learner choice and offsetting costs to employers through the apprenticeship levy.

    Nothing typifies this confused thinking more than the continued issues with conceptions of the use of technology, where FELTAG was clear that technology “might” help reduce costs, but that its rationale was in widening learning options and opportunities, we now have ever clearer statements from BIS that technology should reduce costs despite there being no clear guidance on funding of technology based and blended learning from the SFA as, to paraphrase, it is all a bit complicated.

    In a rapidly changing climate in terms of production, global warming and technology we don’t need a strictly limited curriculum and limited focus on 16-19, but a more responsive sector in terms of adult and community needs as well as those of employers. In the present climate, where a return to recession was announced yesterday, it is certain that the Government attempt to offset adult learning costs to employers for retraining and upskilling is optimistic at best and woefully inadequate in the face of the future where changes in production techniques and the location of production facilities will become more flexible along with the scale of manufacturing in any one place.

    As has been illustrated in the comments to this article, there is a great deal of concern and cynicism about the leaked proposals and all of us concerned for the future of education should be looking forensically at all current Government proposals and be willing to challenge those that will continue the current two tier funding and the negative consequences of the underlying ideology so carefully exposed by Wolf in 2011 and 2015.

  10. Kenneth Gaines

    New technical have been developed in several markets that prove the old BTEC is not necessarily the right thing and there can be a qualification that stretches learners while providing them with skills to lead where they want – apprenticeship, further full time programmes, job or HE. While those with a very academic mind set will continue to want to go down the GCSE/A Level route, these new qualifications offer those who are not sure some of both worlds and those who may be week academically the opportunity to shine by using the skills base to support the academic requirements.

    They are certainly not for those who are not capable of doing much and have the rigour you would expect in the way they are assessed, but equally important have been endorsed by Employers and gaining recognition by HE. Comments on the staffing to deliver go back to the need to bring back the delivery teams being seen as Professionals and working in a Profession.

  11. An attack on vocational study programmes is academic snobbery. Students studying vocational subjects like BTecs have to work twice as hard as A level students, not least because they are in relevant placements at the same time. The depth to which they are expected to study is equal to A level studies. People who feel the need to criticise existing qualifications based on their narrow experiences need to research their ideas with open mindedness and a non judgemental approach. As previous comments state, employers know what to expect from vocational qualifications which creates confidence in who they employ and many universities have realised the quality of vocational courses. Speaking from my own experience, our students, who go on to university, repeatedly inform us they have found their first year of study at university quite easy due to subjects they are being taught having already been covered on their vocational course with us.