Way back in April of this year I was asked to attend a roundtable discussion of Further Education (FE) sector leaders to provide evidence to the Times Education Commission. For those of you unfamiliar with the commission, it’s aim is to examine the future of education in light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work.
Last week we finally saw the summation of the investigation into our education system. In its final report, the commission has concluded that our current system is ‘failing on every measure’ and has called for a complete education reset – setting out a 12 point plan to overhaul our education system.
Here at City & Guilds, we commend the commission for its work, and we welcome many of the conclusions of the report. Indeed, the report is right to call for dramatic change to our system, which has not been fit for purpose for quite some time.
Many recommendations and findings from the report resonate with our own recommendations from our recent research pieces, such as Recovery and Resilience and Act Now. The suggestion of Careers Academies teaching technical and vocational courses aligns well with City & Guilds’ call for the establishment of Lifelong Learning Hubs, to allow people to reskill and retrain throughout their careers for example. It’s clear that many of us are fully aligned on the need to put in place a long-term plan for education that will stop the constant tinkering by successive Governments and positively shape the future of the system.
But whilst this review is warmly welcomed, the report’s findings are narrow and still place too much focus on academic education and higher education routes such as university – leaving alternative routes such as vocational and technical education trailing behind. Sadly, this was not so surprising, given that none of the commissioners are stakeholders in further education.
Parity of esteem still a far flung dream?
It’s not to say that any of the initiatives are bad, far from it. But, any education reform that doesn’t encompass academic and technical education as two sides of the same coin is missing out on a crucial learning for our society as a whole – technical skills taught through the FE system are just as valuable as academic ones. We need both to fuel a thriving economy. And if we leave FE out of the picture, it’s like building a house with no foundations.
For instance, whilst recommendations such as new university campuses in higher education ‘cold spots’ are of course welcomed as a means to level up education access, such a policy would fail to recognise the need for greater access to vocational and technical training courses across the UK, particularly to service adult learners who might need to upskill or reskill later in their careers.
Meanwhile, we support the call for a reformed Ofsted, and for a 15-year strategy for education – however for both of these, we need to ensure they are taking into account the needs of the academic AND the professional and technical systems from the very beginning.
Apprenticeships are key
Apprenticeships should be a central part of any future education strategy. Despite the Times Higher Education’s research finding that, promisingly, more people support apprenticeships than university degrees, there is still so much to be done to improve their reputation and accessibility if this good feeling is to translate into a significant increase in the numbers of people taking apprenticeships.
According to our market research from summer 2021, 40% of 17–19-year-olds in their final two years of school reported that they have planned or plan to go to university. This compares to 13% who say the same for apprenticeships, and 22% who planned to go straight into employment. It’s clear that amongst many young people, university degrees are still seen as the most attractive route to take – whether that’s because it’s the easiest, has the best reputation, or just the one they know most about.
And on top of these misunderstandings, there are many practical reasons which make apprenticeships unavailable to many young people. The number of apprenticeship starts have plummeted since the introduction of the levy, largely in part to excessive red tape that leaves many small and medium-sized business struggling to access the levy available to them.
The bottom line is that whilst the work of the Times Education Commission is greatly welcomed, we need to think more holistically about education. Ultimately, we need an education system that helps people thrive as children and adults and equips people to get into meaningful jobs throughout their entire working lives by keeping them skilled and employable throughout their careers.
For this to happen, education and skills must be held equally in esteem, and will work hand in hand as we unite to reinvigorate the UK’s education and skills system.