Reforming vocational education – will it work this time?

By: Mick Fletcher

FE Policy Analyst

Thursday 16 March 2017

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The Post-16 Skills Plan, and the ‘Sainsbury Report’ it builds on, promises big changes in vocational education that will help build a valued and valuable alternative to the academic route of A levels followed by university.  It has been widely welcomed by the sector, not least because it reasserts a central role for college based technical programmes that have recently seemed side-lined by the political obsession with apprenticeships. These proposals however are only the latest in a long line of attempts to ‘reform’ vocational education that have generally ended in failure, and one is entitled to ask ‘will it be any different this time?’

On the positive side there is no doubt about the political commitment to reform; the cross party consensus is perhaps best symbolised by a Conservative government embracing a report from a former Labour minister. There is support from the sector too, perhaps encouraged by the clear role for ‘education professionals’ alongside employers in developing the system and the recognition of a need to build on rather than bypass existing institutions. But is it enough?

If this set of reforms is to succeed government needs to address two big questions about which it has to date been largely silent.

The first question is where are all the new students on technical and professional (TPE) programmes going to come from? If we rule out simply rebadging BTECs and look instead for real growth on this route, it is clear that it can only come at the expense of academic provision and in most areas that means school 6th forms.  Since the raising of the participation age almost all 16 and 17 year olds are already in education or work with approved training.  Those currently on programmes at level 2 and below will not magically now become capable of a rigorous high quality technical education and many will not be able to do so even after the proposed ‘transition’ year.

It may make sense to recruit those young people who stay on into the 6th form by default, struggling with an academic education to which they are not best suited even though it suggests TPE is for the less able: but has anyone told the schools? Indeed has anyone told that part of DfE which is still encouraging and approving the opening of new 6th forms in free schools and academies even in areas where there is more than adequate provision?  Schools will not welcome losing any pupils from 6th forms that are marginally viable; they would die in a ditch not to lose the brightest.

The second question is why should ambitious young people and their parents opt for a route that is so clearly signalled as second class. Higher technical and professional education (HTPE) will be separated from higher education proper by a new and clearer binary divide.  HTPE will involve sub-degree level work; it will take place not in autonomous high status HE institutions but attached to existing FE colleges. It may not have the same entitlements to loan support; it will have more political interference.

And again one has to ask where the higher TPE students will come from.  Politicians stress the low take up of sub-degree level qualifications in the UK. They rarely make the point that what distinguishes us from other advanced economies is not that we have fewer people with post-secondary qualifications, but that we have more of that group qualified at the level of a full degree. To achieve the goals of the Skills Plan we would have to depress the aspirations of a proportion of the post-secondary cohort!

No-one talks of it in these terms of course; the rhetoric is about tackling ‘snobbery’ which it is claimed underpins our failure to develop a cadre of technicians: but it’s not snobbery to want a BSc. rather than an HND – it is called ambition.

Put these two issues together and the scale of the task for reformers becomes clear.  How can one persuade young people to undertake new qualifications which are unlikely to be seen as equivalent to their academic alternatives, when it is strongly in the interest of schools (for 16-18 year olds) and Universities (for an older cohort) to advise them otherwise.  The fate of University Technical Colleges (UTCs) which despite high profile support are suffering from serious under-recruitment should be a warning.  If technical education is to take off it will require serious system level reform that goes far beyond reconstructing vocational qualifications while leaving academic ones unchanged.

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