From education to employment

Skills Plan or Mission Impossible?

A Personal View On: The Skills Plan or Mission Impossible?

It would only be fair to say that anything ambitious, like the Skills Plan, would have many questions at its inception. There would be a few immediate doubters about such ambitions and a few advocates who see the need for change, but most may just be wondering if there is really anything new and worthy of serious attention?

Well, it is new and it is worthy of serious attention. The reason is that the Skills Plan makes the right recommendations regarding vocational education and training (Technical Education as a clear and high quality route for post 16 education), but I think there are real questions about how coherent the vision is.

The Ambitions of the Skills Plan

The Skills Plan is, fundamentally, a qualification reform to vocational education and training (VET) and its implementation will be significant to FE colleges and, potentially, sixth forms (in regard to cohort reductions?). By focusing on one key area of qualification reform there are many questions about the knock on effects to other areas (and institutions) and whether the policy is coherent in light of those wider system implications.

First, let me select some salient points to give you a flavour of the order of change and ambition:

– 15 routes into technical education – these are occupational groupings that require a level of skills, understanding and knowledge, above basic and intermediate levels but lower than degree level. The routes combine a number of occupational roles within a category say ‘Digital’, (IT business analyst/systems designer, programmer, software developer, IT technician, web designer, network administrator); ‘Engineering and Manufacturing’ (Engineering technician, vehicle mechanic, aircraft fitter, printer, process technician, energy plant operative); ’Hair and Beauty’ (Hairdresser, barber, beauty therapist)

– The routes can be completed either via apprenticeship or college study with work placements.

– The routes can, with short bridging courses, link into A level or degree courses and vice versa.

– A new regulating body is proposed, the Institute for Apprenticeships (and Technical Education).

– Careers advice needs to be impartial and improved in schools.

– Funding needs to be appropriate and there is a potential for funding for a ‘transition’ year to enable students to develop onto the routes.

– There needs to be a political will to see the implementation of the Plan over two terms (pilots may start in 2019 with all routes up and running in 2025).

– The Skills Plan aims to solve the ‘hundred year’ problem of producing a high quality, publicly intelligible, vocational and education training system.

– That the Plan draws on the best examples of high quality vocational and technical education systems to solve the hundred year problem.

Curriculum progression?

After agreeing the need for such courses and qualifications one then needs to see how they may look from the pre 16 school curriculum. As the courses are not specifically leading to graduate study – because their purpose is to fill the skills gaps around technical education and the roless associated with those skills – we do not need to consider the university progression routes in any detail here.

So, if implemented as is, it will mean that pupils experience a school curriculum shaped by performance league tables that are projected to engineer around 90% pupil take-up of the EBacc. That ‘target’ will be reached when the 15 routes of Technical Education are up and running in 2025 (pilots will start in 2019).

If the school curriculum is based on narrow GCSE academic knowledge leading to Sixth Form and University entrance, why would 40% of young people and parents suddenly see ‘technical education’ as an aspiration and not a ‘second best’ option even, dare I say, a position of some failure? What is the policy model that the Skills Plan is constructing?

What is the Policy Model that frames the Skills Plan?

The Skills Plan appears to oscillate between two (or three) possible models for its inspiration around VET – the ‘market’ model found in, say, Australia, a Nordic model which attempts to ‘unify’ academic and vocational education up to 18, and the German or ‘Middle European’ model which has a strong twin track approach: academic or vocational study.

One could argue, charitably, that the Skills Plan is a very clever case of what David Raffe called policy learning – taking elements of systems that work and putting them together in a way that works in your particular policy context. On the other hand, policy borrowing is where you take elements of systems and apply them and ignore (or neglect) such sensitivies as context.

It is possible the Independent Panel were arguing for the former, but the political articulation ends up looking like the latter. Alternatively, it could be that the English tradition of policy borrowing is related to the type of policy formation we have around skills. And don’t forget the Skills Plan itself has the ambition of solving the ‘hundred year problem’ of VET.

I am going to try and show why the Plan is a ‘mission impossible’ and why it may well be a continuation of that ‘problem’ and not a solution.

The Potential Models for Policy Learning or Policy Borrowing?

Australia is in a very similar position to us when it comes to a fragmented, narrow competence vocational and education training system, and it also has a growing private sector interest and influence. So that’s not really a ‘model’ but a mirror in attempting to develop a VET system in an advanced market economy. It also has progression (or course) ‘links’ to allow learners, theoretically, to move from one area of study to another.

On the other hand, the Nordic model, which is built on a planned consensus around the school curriculum, attempts to ‘unify’ academic and vocational pathways, particularly up to the age of 18. Then there is always the model of the German dual system which appears to haunt our policy deliberations. It emphasizes (as we do) apprenticeships. But the German (more properly, ‘Middle European’) system is based on two very distinct tracks and has, to be sure, it’s own problems of churn and transition from one to the other.

Maybe, the amount of policy learning we have to do is short circuiting the plan for the system? Maybe, we still have not quite worked out what an advanced market VET system would look like or what it should do considering the fundamental problems we do have around productivity, skills shortages, skills gaps, and skill formation itself?

Let’s just zoom out a little more and get a handle on what we are doing

It could be put like this. Educational systems have three sorts of academic and vocational relations, as described by David Raffe and Cathy Howieson in a paper, The ‘unification’ of post-16 education (1999). These relations can be put as tracked, linked or unified:

In a tracked system vocational and general education are organised in separate and distinctive tracks. A linked system has different tracks but emphasises their similarities and equivalence, with common structures and elements, and opportunities to mix or transfer between the tracks. A unified system does not use tracks to organise provision but brings all provision within a single system.

To be sure, there are a number of dimensions which make this tripartite taxonomy a little simple, but does give us a very helpful focus on what vision we are aiming for.

So, broadly, we could say that Nordic countries have a unified system. Middle Europe has a tracked system, England and Australia have ‘linked’ systems. However, in the English context, academic provision is seen as very different and not commensurate with vocational routes. Nevertheless, being English and living in half-way houses, we think they are linked. We think learners can move from A level to BTEC and vice versa.

We have UCAS advice on which degrees offer equivalences for different places, but these are not formal or ‘linked’ relations at the level of policy or regulation, hence there is little intelligence about such learners who do go on to different progression routes. And, more crucially, such linkages are not publicly intelligible. It’s not an everyday fact that if you have this BTEC and this A level you can do a degree. It’s a matter of obscure and detailed policy at institutional level.

So we have, arguably at least, a thin ‘linkage’ system post 16. Nevertheless, such a notion does show that linkage has been prevalent in policy – and even unification at times (Comprehensive education, 14-19 Diplomas and the English Bacc., the latter promoted as a model by Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson at the IOE/UCL).

It is clear that in the Skills Plan there is a strong view of the technical education routes being ‘linked’ to academic routes. According to this demarcation of academic and vocational routes though, our school, adult skills (the great functional skills debate) and apprenticeship policy fields could be seen as ‘tracked,’ while the technical education routes are to be ‘linked’.

Even more contentious is the ‘unification’ of apprenticeships and the ‘college’ routes to technical education. Such thoughts suggest a fundamental tension in policy, at best, or a flat contradiction, at worst. Antipodean skills policy and Nordic technical education or somewhere between the two….

A Tiered System?

There is always the possiblity that we are doing something new but have just not expressed it because we don’t have the vocabulary (even VET sends shivers down some spines). We could be developing a new ‘tiered’ system based on the idea that schools, FE and Universities should be uncoupled in policy terms. The rationale (and ideological argument) would be that the market notion of ‘institutional’ interests and identity (note the new insolvency laws for FE colleges) provides competition and better performance for the educational system.

And the technical education routes are ‘related,’ but by a sort of qualification ‘exchange’. I wouldn’t use the term ‘linked,’ as Raffe and Howieson taxonomy has it, because of the uncoupling (or ‘tiering’) of sectors and the market and institutional interests which will always trump any ‘curriculum’ progression planning (even in the face of Ofsted at times!). It’s a point that obviously needs further elaboration.

And note, that in that broader ‘market place’ of institutional interests, the technical education courses themselves are determined by a new employer body (Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education), so there is no guarantee of publicly intelligible equivalence emerging anyway. One can hope, of course.

Whatever it is, it’s not European!

Other ‘market’ economies that have the best VET systems are co-ordinated market economies that are more regulated (the State does play a greater and more active role) and therefore have better ‘mediated’ mechanisms that enable stakeholders to develop agreements in and about the system.

And by stakeholders I mean State, employers, vocational educational experts, academic educational experts, and, of course, trade unions. Such agreements end up in regulation and laws which means that the public and all who participate in VET know where they are and who is doing what.

This is why they have publicly intelligible qualification systems (a clear ambition of the Independent Technical Education Panel whose recommendations the Government have taken up).

Whereas, on the other hand, an uncoordinated market economy has no checks and balances from trade unions and educationalists (as in Germany) or government steerage (as in France with its Ministries) (thanks to Andy Green’s work for these examples).

The British Policy Process as Part of the Problem

The other noteworthy distinction that David Raffe and Cathy Howieson point out is that changes in the type of system you want (tracked, linked, and unified) also infect the policy process.

How far you need to ‘mediate’ and appease multiple interests follows from the system you are putting in place. A tracked system can deal with education and employers separately; a linked system needs to bring those together (at times); and a unified system needs to bring all parties together.

Added to that are the key mechanisms for change as they put it:

British unifying reforms focus on the two dimensions of certification (qualifications drive the reform process) and government and regulation (exemplified by the creation of ….[regulatory bodies]). European strategies put more emphasis on other dimensions such as institutions, curriculum and pedagogy… (Raffe and Hewieson).

In this light we can now see that we are on very familiar ground:

– the 15 technical education routes are ‘qualifications led’

– the emergence of a new regulatory body (Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education) underscores this.

– English and Maths – again qualification led, admittedly a major step, but, of course, there is great debate about other interests here from the functional skills champions. How do we resolve that – by more turf wars?

– The licensing of an awarding body for each route, again, it looks right but it is still ‘regulation’ led.

All of these measures are framed in a very traditional English approach to reform. So, far from the Panel coming up with a 100 year problem and a new answer, we may have the same sort of ambitious promises as in the past. More upfront and honest to be sure (funding and political will being mentioned), but still subject to a fundamental lack of mediation.

What could have happened? We could have taken a longer and harder look (very Nordic!) and began with our school and college curricula from 5-18; understood and debated the pedagogical approaches from academic to work based learning; understood the assessment needed and potential cross overs of academic and work based models (craft to semi-professional), and then gone on to consider graduate study and work based learning at that level (professional whether in Engineering, Hairdressing or Accountancy).


In conclusion, the Skills Plan is an attempt to try to steer (and frame) a market model of VET to produce better and much needed skill development at technical levels. But it suffers from what the Plan has itself identified as the 100 year problem of VET and continues to assume, ignore or omit:

  • any policy coupling with schools or universities
  • mediating mechanisms with public sector interests (3 million apprenticeships remember)
  • mediating mechanisms with workforce representation (trade unions particularly), professional bodies or educationalists
  • the academic curriculum being the cornerstone of personal, social, and economic development (creating a tiered system?)
  • that the key players (unspecified employers) – who have no established history of relating educational and social development – are best to drive the market system forward.
  • that institutional interests in market positions trump curriculum and pedagogical coherence

Skills plan or mission impossible, you decide.

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

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