From education to employment

Platitudes and Worn Out Clichés Won’t Give England a World-class FE and Skills System

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB)

“Let me begin by saying this,” says @TomBewick, “There is absolutely nothing ‘German-style’ about what the education secretary @GavinWilliamson proposes for the future of #FE, #Apprenticeships and #Skills policy in England 

You’ll have to read right up until the end of this essay to fully understand why. To really appreciate what lies at the heart of this new mantra about the future direction of the country’s technical education system, it is critically important to understand the strategic contours of England’s over three decades’ old skills policy debates.

The speech Williamson gave to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) recently was punctuated by plenty of soaring rhetoric, platitudes and the kind of clichés that have underpinned the debate for decades.

About two-thirds of what Williamson said has featured in the speeches and official documents of his predecessors, going back at least as far as Gillian Shephard.

In 1997, Shephard was the last Conservative education and employment secretary before Tony Blair swept into power. Since then, the incumbents of the office have all shared one overriding and perhaps a defining characteristic. They all start out saying they will be more radical than the last. For example, Williamson told a group of MPs earlier this year that the planned White paper in the autumn will be “really revolutionary.”

Where Gavin Williamson has diverged from the political orthodoxy that has driven tertiary education policy for three decades is his “tearing up” of Blair’s 50 per cent HE participation mantra (as it was never actually an official government target). Along with his ministerial colleague, Michelle Donelan, a kind of declaration of war has just been declared on the universities’ sector.

A salutary tale, if there ever was one, that if autonomous education institutions take the Queen’s shilling in the form of massive taxpayer support, sooner or later, they should not be overly surprised if their political paymasters come back to bite them.

The Education Secretary’s Passion for FE

The British love affair with full-time three-year bachelor’s degrees is over. It will be an acrimonious divorce that will lead to far less taxpayer support for teacher-orientated higher education institutions in future.

Instead, the post-18 tertiary education budget will be “re-balanced” towards scientific research orientated HE institutions and FE colleges. Whatever the spin that will be placed on it by some sector leaders, the idea that more money in real terms will be simultaneously lavished on both HE and FE is a non-starter. The country can’t afford it.

There’s no doubt, the education secretary seems very sincere about his passion for FE. He was the product of a state education system himself, followed by a further education college.

He was candid enough to admit in the SMF speech that the record of his own party in government since 2010 has been one of massive cuts and disinvestment in the sector. Like local government, FE budgets have been slashed by more than 40 per cent, with adult learners outside of the university system taking the brunt.

Over two million older adults have been denied the opportunity to update their skills over the last decade because of austerity. They’ve fared better in England’s recently reformed apprenticeship system, although this has mainly come at the expense of far fewer apprenticeship starts for 16-24 year olds. Labour market experts will tell you that we have been running to stand still on so many important skills success measures since the mid-2000s. It has been over a decade of stagnation and at times sheer ineptness, overseen ironically, by some of the very same people now at the heart of the Prime Minister’s policy unit advising him on FE policy.

Government Finally Seems To Get It!

Of course, Williamson’s mea culpa on funding should be welcomed. The government, from the First Lord of the Treasury (prime minister) downwards do finally seem to get it. Further education representatives have won the argument on more investment in the sector. The reality, however, is that this so called “levelling up” agenda for FE will largely come about at the expense of levelling down the budgets of HE.

People are being dishonest to suggest otherwise since, by definition, if fewer people study full-time honours degrees in future, HE institutions will receive less in state funds.

The only way around this challenge will be if more teaching universities decide to switch provision to the new growth areas:

  • Degree level apprenticeships,
  • Shorter employability related courses for those in work, including
  • New higher technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5.

A Robust System of Governance

The next, more fundamental question, is have FE leaders won the argument on what the new found monies will be spent on and how it will all be governed, managed and distributed in future?

The answer to that question, I have to conclude, is they have not. That’s because ministers seem bent on a path that will say to the sector in the planned FE White paper, that central government will only invest more money in the sector if college autonomy is massively curtailed. Of course, it won’t be positioned quite as crudely as that. It will instead be presented to the sector as “a robust system of governance”, as Williamson said in the closing paragraphs of his SMF speech.

It won’t be full-scale nationalisation either, but it will be unprecedented, very centralised and, crucially, Whitehall controlled. The mayoral combined authorities may receive more devolved budgets, but they will face financial penalties for not meeting centrally approved targets.

In any case, there are major doubts in Whitehall about transferring power from one set of bureaucrats to another. It has already led to the setting up of paralleled administrations which means, in England as a whole, less money for learners and tutors at the front line.

Controlling the System

More crucially, the Department for Education is applying that old Marxist-Leninist principle: “he who controls the financial levers and the means of production controls the system itself.” Dominic Cummings may have rather unkindly referred to hardworking civil servants at the Department for Education when he was a special adviser there as, “the Blob”, but his outburst underlines one uncomfortable truth. It doesn’t matter which party is in power, how determined or charismatic the secretary of state of the day is, the technocracy in Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, will always have the last word.

I regularly come across (now senior) civil servants that have been in the department for 30 years. The average tenure of a skills minister is just 15 months, one month less than a struggling premiership football manager.

Because this is in fact the real orthodoxy that needs challenging and perhaps “tearing up” at the heart of post-18 tertiary education policy. The answer to decades of government failure in skills policy is to double down on more government involvement in the design, delivery and control of skills policy. It’s like the patient in hospital seriously ill with heart disease being told by doctors that they need to quit smoking, lose weight and take more exercise, only to be found on release to have upped the nicotine dose, sitting in front of the TV all day, stuffing cream cakes.

The Drift to Centralisation

We saw this exact same pattern under the last Labour government when it came to the intervention in school standards. Ministers were told that the only way to improve educational attainment was to knock local councils out of the picture. The academy’s programme was borne out of the fear that the massive investment the Blair government wanted to make in schools would be lost to “loony councillors” unless the reform could be more governed and directed from the centre. I should know, I was the Labour party’s national policy officer on education and employment at the time; and I remember vividly some of the internal debates with Whitehall mandarins. Arguably, the tone around some of the FE sector press coverage in recent years has probably not helped the cause of FE college independence. Ministers do read the stories and they are deeply affected by allegations of financial mismanagement, out of control expense accounts and lobster dinners. From their own perspective, why would they hand over more money to college leaders unconditionally?

The drift to centralisation has been happening in skills policy for some time. The Richard Review read like the communist manifesto. Only a fundamental overhaul of the entire model, Mao-style, would deliver an apprenticeship model akin to Germany in terms of better performance. Out went UK-wide national occupational standards (NOS). In came new so-called employer led standards which were in fact written by many of the same high-paid consultants that had been hired to write the NOS. Out went a bonfire of Labour created quangos and in came new ones, presumably with the kind of appointed place people on them more sympathetic to government policy.

A Uniquely English Experiment

T-Levels is another classic example of what I call state-market paternalism. We have been living though a uniquely English experiment in the sense that the Department for Education is now becoming a state awarding body. Take a situation where the opposite is still the case, like A-Levels, for example. These advanced qualifications are the most long-lasting, internationally recognised and trusted standard of academic excellence England has ever created. Sure, the state has quite a strong guiding hand in deciding and directing the learning and teaching content. But the independence of exam boards from the state also enables these qualifications to earn millions in overseas exports, as well as attract foreign students to our universities who flock to take them. Instead of learning the lessons of this great domestic and internationally renowned success story – where the state does not own or operationally direct and manage A-Levels – these arguments fall on deaf ears. Why then has Whitehall pursued completely the opposite course of action in relation to technical education?

This seems odd when you consider that A-Levels have become a globally recognised brand, with real value and currency respected by some of the world’s finest universities. With T-Levels, the opposite lesson appears to have been put into practice. The government owns the qualifications, albeit expertly developed by “licenced” awarding bodies. The new Level 4 and 5 higher technical qualifications will also be “kite-marked” and “branded” by government. The problem with all this is what skills world history has taught us: government branded skills interventions never last. Remember the Skills Pledge? There are hundreds more initiatives like this that are buried in the skills world graveyard at the back of Sanctuary Buildings. We know from real experience that the temptation for incoming governments of a different political colour is usually to tear up the work of their predecessors and simply start again. It happened in 1997; it happened again in 2010; and it is happening now.

Even More Government Intervention and Control

We are just 7 years on from the Richard Review. Yet, here we are listening to another modern-day secretary of state telling a think tank gathering saying the system can no longer stand more tinkering. In his view, the system needs root and branch and fundamental reform, led of course, by Whitehall. It’s back to my heart disease patient analogy again: the prescription of government intervention has failed to substantially improve skills and productivity gaps over the last decades in England – A-ha! The answer must simply be to double down and implement even more government intervention and control!

The real problem is that Whitehall has been doubling down like this for three decades and each and every time they have largely failed. Because the mainstream media and wider Westminster bubble are not really interested in the Department for Education’s brief outside schools and universities, the technocracy knows it can get away with it. One set of command and control officials is replaced by another. If Leftie academics like Ewart Keep at the University of Oxford are major cheerleaders for these latest set of changes then Conservative ministers might want to ask themselves what are they unleashing? I would suggest it is developing into something more like Leviathan, than Edmund Burke’s small platoons, where individuals are really empowered.

England Is Absolutely Not On Course To Develop Anything Like a “German-style” Technical Education and Skills System

It is this fundamental failure in skills policy – market failure combined with government failure – which brings me onto why England is absolutely not on course to develop anything like a “German-style” technical education and skills system.

Following the second world war, Germany and the allied powers had a massive strategic choice to make. It could have tried to reconstitute the centralised apparatus left behind by the previous regime, but instead, the allies decided to shape a new German constitution making a future dictatorship impossible.

This is one of the guiding and fundamental principles of the German “Dual System.” The roles and responsibilities of the different players, including the employers, via chambers of commerce, is all defined in the Vocational Training Act of 1969, amended in 2005.

England has no such overarching statute defining the apprenticeships and FE skills system. And where primary legislation does exist it is not one based on the principle of decentralisation. Crucially, the German Federal Minister has very little involvement in the day to day running of the skills and apprenticeship delivery model, this is almost entirely undertaken by the 16 ‘Länder’ (or regional governments).

The other major difference is how the occupational standards are developed and how the system is funded. England has gone down the centralisation route by collecting the Apprenticeship Levy via the tax system. In Germany, this is done via mandatory membership of employer owned chambers of commerce (IHK).

By controlling the purse strings in this way, employers have exercised significant sway over the development of standards, as well as steered the way in which the vocational schools deliver the curriculum. Trade unions also have a formal role, with the whole system driven by consensus building. The model in England is largely driven by ministerial and bureaucratic fiat.

A Top-down Whitehall-led System of Post-16 FES Policy 

German vocational training regulations also state that apprentices must receive at least 40 per cent of their instruction in the classroom. In England, there continues to be massive arguments about reducing the mandatory 20 per cent off the job requirement. And there is no real employer ownership of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). It is a crown-body responsible solely to the secretary of state.

The institute is a technocratic entity staffed by well-meaning civil servants; not by industry experts. IfATE’s employer route panels, in practice, play a largely decorative and not an executive role.

In Germany, BiBB (the federal standards setting body) cannot initiate or develop new occupational standards without the formal sign off of the ‘social partners’ – employers and unions. In this scenario, it would not have been possible for IfATE to have refused the NHS a Level 2 standard in Business Administration if they, in conjunction with the relevant trade unions, had decided they wanted one.

My main concluding point is this: after a burst of liberation in 1992 for FE colleges freed from the shackles of local council control, England has been steadily shifting towards a top-down Whitehall-led system of post-16 FE and skills policy ever since.

The upcoming ‘October Revolution’ will only intensify that shift with the release of the White paper. Like Hegelian philosophy, the future direction of England’s skills policy is the absolute antithesis of Germany’s decentralised and employment-owned model.

It is curious therefore why any senior policy-maker should stand up in public and proclaim that what we are doing is “German-style.” It is like sticking a Leyland badge on a lumbering tractor and passing it off as a slick Mercedes.

As the German-born British parliamentarian of the late 1800s, Sir Bernhard Samuelson, once said: “A politician who says we need to copy the system of another state, has neither real ambition for his country or an original idea of his own.”

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) and  presenter of #SkillsWorldLIVE

This article is based on a speech Tom will be giving at a virtual conference on 21st July at 10.00am, What does the future for apprenticeships, skills and FE look like? Organised by WA Communications.

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