From education to employment

Skills Plan: is it a flash in the pan or lasting vocational reform?

So the Sainsbury Review and the Government’s response, the Skills Plan, is finally out. It’s clearly a good thing that professional and technical education has been recognised as a credible choice for young people that sits alongside A Levels, but is it all good news?

At first glance, we would support the idea of streamlining qualifications so that there is one high quality route per occupation. While vocational options remain so fragmented and confusing they will never achieve parity of esteem among young people, or even with their parents, compared with the apparently simple and more recognisable academic routes. However, is it right to take choice away altogether in terms of awarding organisations who can deliver the pathways?  We don’t with academic routes. Is there a risk that we fixate too much on rationalisation rather than quality as the driver for change, resulting in some unintended consequences and wrong behaviours?

I see a sort of parallel issue with that of the current apprenticeships reform, which we are highly supportive of on the whole, and the need to get the implementation of this reform right rather than be led by a three million Government target continues to be the biggest risk to its success. We have continually stated quantity will follow quality, but focus on the quality model first.

And let’s not forget that this has happened before. I am sure many of you reading this will remember the previous Government launching 14-19 Diplomas in 2008 and then scrapping them a few years later? As we highlighted in our Sense and Instability report, the vocational sector has suffered from a level of government tampering for the past 30 years that hasn’t happened to the same extent or with such frequency as in academic education. I also reflect on the QCF and how much resource effort and cost was pumped into what, ironically given this review, turned out to be a major contributor to the creation of multiple awarding bodies in the first place. I can well imagine there are lots of people right now who, like me, want to applaud the Sainsbury review but will also feel some trepidation about its future long term impact and sustainability. The value of knowing our history is that we can take account of it when making current and future decisions – let’s use that wisdom now.

It’s encouraging to see the links being made between these new technical pathways and apprenticeships. We have long recognised the need for high quality professional and technical education to ladder into apprenticeships as employers tell us that too often new apprentices have not been adequately prepared for an apprenticeship by their previous education. This is a chance to address these concerns, but we do need to make sure that the four pathways that have been identified as primarily serviced through apprenticeships don’t mean the end of any other offers in those occupations.

I was pleased to see the new Institute for Apprenticeships’ remit expand as it becomes the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education from 2018. Together with our Industry Skills Board, we’ve been advocating this expansion in remit since it was first announced. However, as always it’s the implementation of policy that’s important. It’s essential that the IfA is given the autonomy and the resource to be able to do its job effectively and hire the right people to its board.

Probably the point that concerns me the most right now is the totally unrealistic timing set out in the Skills Plan. The system will need to move very quickly to create these new pathways by 2019 and I worry about the very short amount of time given between approval of qualifications and first delivery. We know from our recent experience with the technical qualifications approval process that it’s extremely tough to go from approval to ready for delivery in six months, especially when the focus needs to be on getting the quality model for this right first. After all we are not talking here about a few tweaks to an existing set of frameworks, we are talking about whole eco-system change –  a change that is so potentially exciting and radical but only if we can put the time and thinking into it and not rush to meet unrealistic deadlines.

It’s worth also mentioning the binary nature of this plan which suggests it will make young people choose between academic or professional and technical pathways. We’ve always believed that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other and a high quality vocational route should be as likely to lead to higher education as higher apprenticeships and employment, as well as an academic route allowing you to enter apprenticeships or employment if ready at the end of A Level study. We’ve worked hard to ensure our newly approved technical qualifications have all achieved UCAS recognition and that HEIs themselves see real value in taking in learners with more work-based experience combined with highly rigorous applied learning.

I want to believe that Sainsbury has published a plan that has the potential to finally solve the injustice of our vocational system and put right all of what I lay out above, achieving a lasting technical and professional education system we can be proud of once more but to do so we will need to address the issues raised here and many more to come. 

There is also the simple fact that we need to make this work. Young people deserve real choice that the current education system doesn’t give them, and the chance to develop the skills needed to ultimately successfully enter the workforce. This plan could be the change we’ve all been waiting for, as a sector it’s up to us to make that happen – as the Government you really do need to listen and collaborate with the sector to work through what is a myriad of issues and complexities and put your timetables aside until that is done.

Kirstie Donnelly, Managing Director City & Guilds

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