Following the release of the industrial strategy Green Paper this week, the Education Policy Institute’s Gerard Dominguez-Reig examines the government’s proposals for vocational education and skills.
The government released its industrial strategy Green Paper, which it expects to form the bedrock of
a global, competitive and prosperous Britain. The strategy is built on a reassuringly frank and evidence-based assessment of the country’s strengths and weaknesses. On the skills side, this includes our system’s dichotomy consisting of one of the highest levels of university entry in the developed world and England’s position as the only OECD jurisdiction where 16 to 24-year olds are no more literate or numerate than 55 to 64-year olds. It also rightly highlights geographical inequalities in educational outcomes, and the economic implications of the decline of high level technical training identified in the Education Policy Institute’s ‘Remaking Tertiary Education’[i] report, published in November last year with Professor Alison Wolf.
The Industrial Strategy confirms the government’s commitment to strengthen vocational education, so that it becomes a credible alternative for those who do not go to university. This is welcome and uncontroversial. Until this route has the parity of esteem which it currently lacks, we will not only fail to meet the challenges that lie ahead, but we also risk widening the divide between academic and vocational education. However, in order to deliver a better parity of esteem across routes, technical provision needs to be of genuinely high quality, and it needs to deliver genuinely good labour market outcomes.
That comes at a price: for many learners, technical or vocational learning begins at 16 as they move into a stage of education that the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility has noted [ii] is underfunded compared to earlier education in school, and to university education. Our research highlights that expanding university participation in the coming years could increase taxpayer costs by as much as £1bn per cohort. As the Green Paper acknowledges, college provision involves few learning hours relative to international competitors and other stages of education. Furthermore, England’s big gaps in attainment at 16 currently combine with a clear sorting of pupils into technical and academic training; that means education institutions face a big challenge in delivering the immediate labour market outcomes of their academic counterparts for learners, especially in a labour market that, for the time being, lacks intermediate level jobs [iii]. With public funding scarce, to provide a more diverse and better-funded learner population to the technical routes, the government may need to make a clearer decision about whether it is willing to compromise on its ambitions to expand university participation.
The government has pledged to invest £170 million in the construction of Institutes of Technology in every region, focusing on the development of STEM skills. Although the announcement could help stream more young people into STEM routes and bridge skills gaps in those fields, it is uncertain whether new centres of excellence in maths and English teaching will help improve provision of basic skills amidst a difficult teacher recruitment climate. Further, the government’s intention to reduce the number of FE colleges combined with a regional or city-based focus for new Institutes may limit the range of new options within reach of learners wishing to remain in their family home: currently 70% of further education learners travel less than 10km to their provider[iv]. That means more funding may be needed for the maintenance loans for technical education that are, sensibly, being considered.
Introducing a UCAS-style system for applying to vocational courses could give consistency to the new strategy, especially if information and transparency become central to it so that potential routes, details on providers, and labour opportunities are clearly presented to prospective students. The BIS and Department for Education joint report on careers advice warned that current provision is poor, patchy, equipped with unqualified professionals, and struggling to provide independent advice that builds on accurate labour market information. The new careers strategy, if built on proper foundations and the progress made by the Careers and Enterprise Company, will be crucial.
Although the industrial strategy rightly identifies many of the challenges ahead, it needs to be built upon with further detail and should address the concerns raised around funding, teacher training, capacity in vocational education provision, and the development of numeracy, literacy and STEM skills.
This article was also published in TES on the 30th January.
REPORT: Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?
This report, authored by Professor Alison Wolf with supporting analysis by Education Policy Institute researchers, argues that English technical education is in need of urgent reform – and that the current system for funding university level qualifications is unsustainable and highly inefficient. The findings from Professor Wolf’s report were delivered at the Education Policy Institute 2016 Annual Lecture, which can be watched in full here.