The publication of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by Lord Sainsbury (published today), is hardly likely to receive anything like the attention given to the Chilcot report but it nevertheless shines an equally bright light on systemic failures in a vital area of public policy.
Vocational education in England and Wales has long been characterised by a great deal of change, uncertainty and, ultimately, policy failure. Sainsbury recommends radical reform. In place of the thousands of vocational qualifications and courses currently offered post-16, the report proposes 15 new job-related technical pathways with a clear route of progression to levels 4 and 5. Even more significantly, learners will be expected to choose between the academic route, and progression to University, and this new technical route at the age of 16.
There are a number of reasons why these proposals should be given a warm welcome. Firstly, there is now the clear intention to establish a rigorous technical route post-16. As the President of the AoC Martin Doel has remarked, the term ‘vocational’ is now dead – the new vocabulary is based around technical and professional education.
Secondly, the emphasis placed on progression to levels 4 and 5 may help to finally fill the economically damaging gap in provision of technical learning at these levels. As I wrote in my HEPI paper Raising productivity by improving higher technical education, published last year, one reason for the paucity of provision has been a lack of clarity about its purpose – is it to increase the basis of technical knowledge and expertise or to widen participation at University? A stricter divide between the academic and technical routes should prevent technical courses from being ‘academicised’ and help build greater esteem for a technical pathway. Thirdly, as I recommended in my HEPI paper, all college based course will have to include work experience – helping to build stronger links between college and local employers.
However, while the report has a great deal to commend it, there remain significant issues concerning policy and implementation that have not yet been sufficiently addressed. At the forefront of these is the obvious question of whether it is always appropriate to force learners to make such a stark choice at 16? Further, does a strict academic / technical divide actually reflect all the needs of a modern economy where employers often need recruits with a range of skills? In the absence of a ‘middle path’ combining academic and vocational learning an increasing number of young learners are combining A-Levels with vocationally orientated BTECs. It is notable that the Sainsbury review doesn’t mention BTECs in its 100 pages, or, for that matter, examine employer need in any depth.
In terms of practical challenges, making a binary divide work will require much improved careers advice and guidance, a failing in the system that has yet to be convincingly addressed. FE colleges have also suffered from substantial budget cuts in recent years, raising doubts about their ability to deliver the proposed new pathways. My HEPI report put forward a number of ways to improve technical pedagogy, including encouraging more people with recent industry experience into teaching. Without the right resources there is a danger that the technical pathways will end-up resembling the much maligned ‘programme-led’ apprenticeships of the last decade – college and training provider based provision that lack a strong link to the workplace and employment.
Lastly, the report recommends that the new Institute for Apprenticeships has its remit expanded to encompass ‘all of technical education at levels 2 to 5’. I hope that the Institute develops into the institutional anchor technical education in England and Wales so desperately needs but it will require strong independent leadership, bringing together employers and expert opinion from the sector.
Even with these caveats, the Sainsbury report represents a significant milestone in the story of technical education. The Government has indicated that the reforms will not be implemented until 2019-20. It is now beholden on everyone who cares about technical education to come together to ensure these reforms work in practice. In these uncertain times, our future prosperity may depend on it.