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Mary Curnock Cook: How to improve technical education to deliver higher skills and better productivity

  • 22 June 2017

In a new report for the Higher Education Policy Institute (, Mary Curnock Cook, the former Chief Executive of UCAS, says the Government must address six big gaps in technical education policy to raise skills and productivity.

Mary Curnock Cook, the author of Misunderstanding Technical and Professional Education: Six Category Mistakes (HEPI Policy Note 1), said:

‘The success of the British economy, particularly after Brexit, will depend in large part on the quality of technical and professional education. In the past, this has generally been ignored, underpowered and underfunded.

‘Before the recent general election, skills policy was – rightly – placed at the heart of a new industrial strategy. Technical education is now being reorganised into 15 routes matching the main industrial sectors and new technical qualifications, called T-Levels, are being introduced.

‘I’d love to see this new attempt succeed because students and employers would welcome it. But there are some fundamental design flaws that need to be ironed out up front.’

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

‘The Conservative manifesto promised to make British technical education “as prestigious as our world- leading higher education system”. That challenge has proved a particularly big conundrum for British policymakers, bedevilling past administrations.

‘Recent changes provide hope that we can raise our game, but they will not succeed without further improvements. In particular, if the new T-Levels are to be respected by students and employers, they need to be clarified, tweaked and explained.’

Notes for Editors

HEPI Policy Note 1, Misunderstanding Technical and Professional Education: Six Category Mistakes, considers six areas:

  1. Parity of esteem: The new T-Levels are supposed to give technical education the same status as academic education. But they have a different purpose and structure to A-Levels. So they will succeed only if they provide progression to employment or further learning and are demanded by employers.
  2. Public understanding: GCSEs and A-Levels enjoy high public understanding. In contrast, it is unclear if T-Levels are umbrella qualifications for a range of occupations or aimed at specific occupations. The ‘Creative and Design’ route, for example, includes ‘art producer, graphic designer, audio-visual technician, journalist, product/clothing designer, upholsterer, tailor, furniture maker’. It is unlikely one qualification could cover all this.
  3. Naming: A-Levels are ‘Advanced’. But the ‘T-Level’ conflates a purpose (‘technical’) with the scale of the challenge (Level). If T-Levels are to be Level 3 qualifications (like A-Levels), then what term is to be used for Level 2 technical and professional qualifications? An intuitive naming convention for the new routes is essential to public understanding.
  4. Tripartitism… : Splitting qualifications into distinct technical and academic pathways leaves ‘Applied General’ qualifications, like BTECs, roaming free. Re-categorising them as ‘academic’ qualifications, as has been suggested, would ensure confusion among learners and employers.
  5. …or Bipartism? It is said the new routes will be delivered in FE colleges, full-time or as part of an apprenticeship. But, if they are to have the desired currency and reputation, many school sixth-forms could cease to be viable. However, if schools continue to deliver Applied General qualifications such as BTECs, colleges may struggle.
  6. Careers education: T-Levels are to be promoted as a post-GCSE option. Yet young students will have had no prior exposure to the 15 pathways. It will be difficult for a STEM-orientated GCSE student, for example, to choose confidently between the ‘Engineering and Manufacturing’ pathway and the ‘Transport and Logistics’ pathway without top-notch careers education.




  1. Richard Masters says:

    A have devised a new model for the inputs, outputs and the overarching strategy for the delivery of university level Engineering courses which I intend to start embedding in my new Engineering courses and I would like to discuss it with Mary or anyone else who might be interested – it embeds all the notes I took at the AoC Research and Scholarly Activity Conference in Birmingham last Tuesday as well.

    1. Mary Curnock Cook says:

      Please feel free to email me…or find me on Twitter

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