From education to employment

How do we save UK skills? Perhaps start by asking the right people…

Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

As another report highlights challenges faced by the UK in improving skills shortages and increasing productivity, I ask the question, who are the right people to ask when we reform VET qualifications?

The UK has been chasing a solid vocational skills system since the mid-1800s, when international competitors first began to steal a march on the successes enjoyed by Britain during the early industrial revolution. Despite reform, after reform, after reform, we seem to continually miss the mark on what the UK needs from vocational and technical education.

The reforms for example to apprenticeships, notably the removal of qualifications and mind-blowing complexity of signing students up, have driven down skills recruitment, directing monies from training electricians, hairdressers and mechanics to training senior managers in large organisations in their stead.

There are also other consequences, for example, a recent student emigrating to Australia with a completed apprenticeship could not get recognition without an underpinning knowledge qualification. Fortunately, they had achieved a level two qualification on a full-time programme before starting the apprenticeship. Without this fortune, their dream life may well have been cut short. An unintended yet predictable outcome of the removal of formal qualifications.

Limitations of the T Level

The introduction of T Levels works in certain disciplines, in particular where there are historically low numbers on programmes and high industry demand. Construction: Design, Surveying and Planning is one of these instances, provided of course you reside in a part of the country that has this industry demand and willing employers.

Where it absolutely will not work is where numbers are far greater – digital for example – and where geography dictates otherwise. In these areas, as I have written about before, we are putting students at a substantial disadvantage as we are not allowing students in remote locations to ever train as engineers or programmers. The qualification naturally chokes ambition and funnels opportunity to far fewer young people than anything that is currently on offer.

Ofsted’s report on T Levels is interesting here. Although the language is predictably cautious, there is recognition of the drawbacks faced by the closing of the Applied General qualification pathways that so many use as a means of progression to higher education. This pathway supports the disadvantaged into university opportunities, where geography is far less important, and industry and opportunity are available in the locale.

One notable, but slightly buried recommendation, is to ‘carefully consider the implications and impact of the planned withdrawal of funding for other similar courses to ensure that students are not disadvantaged.’ It seems from this statement, even Ofsted remain unconvinced. Tom Bewick and Matilda Gosling’s latest report on productivity, ‘Running to Stand Still’, highlights that there is no evidence a plethora of policies and initiatives have had any positive impact on the UK skills market, but as interesting as the report is, it is just another report in a rhythmic cycle of reports saying the same thing, perhaps slightly differently.

The impact of austerity

Austerity of course has also played a part in the exacerbation of skills shortages. The decline in adult education funding since 2010 is bleak, denying many second-chance opportunities to re-train in key industrial sectors. The IFS reported that, despite a recent increase in the budget, total adult skills spending in 2024/25 will still, in 2025, be 22% below 2009 levels. In an increasingly fiscally challenging environment, reaching into the back pocket for qualifications will not take precedence over paying the vastly increased energy bills, mortgage payments and rising prices at the pumps faced by millions. Those with the potential to help with the skills deficit will instead prioritise what they reach into their wallet for.

Who helps make the UK more competitive?

The wider question is then, what do we do? Who are the people responsible for the development of qualifications that will genuinely help and support the UKs ambition to compete on the world stage – something that has been missing for 150 years? Do we entrust the decisions to politicians and civil servants? To ‘sector experts’? To CEOs of Tier 1 corporations? To the one-man-bands? The bricklayers? The electricians? The chefs? The people who teach the skills themselves? To this, there is no easy answer, but research, reports and rhetoric, whilst interesting in their observations and not necessarily inaccurate, have not moved the agenda forward for many decades.

Gaps in policy and reform are identified by those at the chalk face right at the conception stage, yet they are either never asked or routinely ignored as political agenda, dogmatism and ideology reign supreme. Very early conversations between teachers and civil servants at the DfE on T Levels predicted everything the Ofsted report stated five years hence. I’ve no idea what it costs to commission several very expensive inspectors to gather this information, but I do know an hour sitting down with an experienced teacher or curriculum manager would have given you the same information.

Those same teachers, curriculum managers, headteachers, principals (and Directors of Faculty) have been telling you for some time that the next reforms you have planned will not work. That the changes to level 3 qualifications will not work. That your attempt to align the UKs skills ambitions with the best in the world does not find its answer in the T Levels alone. That things are far more nuanced and play out as much in the liminal spaces between policy and practice as they do in the everyday experiences of those who enact them.

Things are clearly changing in the political world, and parliamentary reform seems as inevitable as the vocational, so perhaps next time, there will be more policy writers willing to listen to these voices. There is always hope.

Neil Sambrook
By Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

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