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Without proper investment in the teaching workforce, England’s technical education reforms are doomed to failure

Neil Bates, Chair of Trustees at the Edge Foundation

Over the past decade, successive governments have promised ‘pioneering’ reforms to boost skills and jobs. In particular, following the Sainsbury Review and Post-16 Skills Plan in 2016, the government implemented a series of reforms. Initiatives included the Apprenticeship Levy, new apprenticeship standards, the establishment of IfATE, the introduction of T Levels, National Colleges, Higher Technical Qualifications, and more. These reforms have all been framed as part of a 10-year plan to deliver a ‘world-class skills system’. But there is a glaring problem. Without proper investment in the technical teaching workforce, these reforms are doomed to failure.

After 30 years in this sector, it’s clear to me that the government’s inability to develop an effective workforce strategy to recruit, retain and reward expert technical teachers is the single biggest issue facing providers right now. And it has reached a crisis point. In 2019, the Augar Review highlighted that recruitment to FE is made more challenging by “direct competition from schools, higher education institutions and businesses” all of which typically offer better pay. To illustrate, the average pay for an FE lecturer is £31,600 compared to £37,400 for school teachers and £52,000 for a senior HE lecturer.

The FE Workforce Crises

 The FE workforce crises is made far worse because, in addition to being great teachers, FE lecturers and trainers need to be industry experts as well. In my college our apprentices in rail engineering, building services and electrical engineering were frequently going into jobs paying more than the people that taught them. I have lost count of the number of great FE teachers who have gone back into industry because of the poor pay, lack of professional recognition, job insecurity and a relentless bureaucratic workload which takes them away from teaching their learners the technical skills that they need. In an ever tightening labour market the shortage of technical teachers is going to get significantly worse.

There needs to be a fundamental re-think of the funding rates for apprenticeships and FE. It should take proper account of the true cost to providers of recruiting and rewarding industry expert technical trainers and lecturers. That’s going to require a much bigger investment in all forms of FE than is currently planned. While, according to government data, spending on adult education and apprenticeships is expected to rise by 30% between 2020 and 2025, this only reverses a fraction of past cuts. In truth, spending on adult education is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003/04, and about 50% lower than in 2009/10. 

Promises to ‘Level Up’

Headline-grabbing policies and promises to ‘level up’ are of little use without competitive salaries and targeted investment in training. The government must act now to tackle the growing shortage of technical teachers in the sector. Without radical action, the promised ‘world-class skills system’ is an impossible pipe dream.

Exacerbating the issue is the pervasive lack of esteem in FE, which Chair of the Commons Education Committee, Robert Halfon, describes as the ‘Cinderella sector’. He writes: “It is our job to banish the ugly sisters of snobbery and intolerance and fight for the resources our colleges deserve.” Quite right. To achieve this not only means differentiating FE and technical education from other tiers of the system, but providing training that is better aligned to real-world jobs.

To see where we might be instead, we can look to Finland, which has one of the best-ranked education systems in Europe. Following successful careers in their chosen industry, many Finnish technical professionals aspire to train the next generation of workers as a logical next step in their own career. It is a mark of pride. Finland also consults employers on how their industry and its skills needs are changing. This is an enviable position for the Finnish system and one the UK should aim to emulate.

So how would we go about this?

Firstly, we need a national plan to re-build and add capacity to our skills system after decades of under-investment. This requires an overarching and joined up, National Strategy for Skills.

The National Strategy should be underpinned by skills strategies for sectors critical to the UK economy. Owned by employers, these sector strategies should forecast employment and skills requirements over five years, setting targets for the number of new entrant apprentices (16-19) needed to develop a talent pipeline for the future. Regrettably too few employers plan in this way and the result is the kind of crises we have seen with LGV drivers in recent months. Short-term government backed ‘bootcamps’ and industry exemptions are just sticking plasters in the absence of proper workforce planning and employer investment.

Secondly, we need a comprehensive workforce strategy for the whole of the FE Sector not just FEC’s. Its central ambition should be to recruit, support and develop the next generation of professional technical teachers.

Third, we should establish a National Institute for Technical Teaching to own and implement the FE workforce strategy. Its remit should be to raise the professional status of technical teachers, maintain professional standards, promote careers in FE, and make pay recommendations. Recognising that the sector does not need another quango the national institute could be created through a merger of the Education & Training Foundation and the Chartered Institution for Further Education bringing together the prestige of a Royal Charter and the CPD resources of the provider owned Foundation. The Institutes work could form part of the remit of IfATE.

Finally, to support the new national training institute, we should establish sector-based Knowledge Centres for key industries. These sector specialist hubs would be responsible for delivering initial teacher training programmes, providing industry updating courses and reviewing curriculums and standards as technology and industry practices evolve. They would be development centres for technical teachers providing access to the latest industry technology including digitally-enabled learning technologies. Teachers would be entitled – if not required – to undertake regular industry placements, similar to Edge’s Teacher Externships, to keep their expertise on point.

R&D Centres for Each Industry Sector?

Essentially, they would be R&D centres for each industry sector and the wider FE sector – a place where effective practice is routinely shared, ideas nurtured, and collegiality celebrated. Staff working in UTC’s, FEC’s, ITP’s, IoT’s, Employer Providers and National Colleges would all have access to the Knowledge Centres which could be regionally located in existing specialist FE facilities in a similar way to teaching hospitals in the NHS.

It is now time for action. It’s one thing to reform the technical education system itself. However, the issue with the government’s skills strategy is that they treat it as a systemic problem when it’s really a people problem. Spending millions on shiny buildings and equipment is no use without targeted investment, competitive salaries and ongoing CPD to deliver the desired outcomes for learners. And unless we start valuing the FE workforce, we will never achieve the world-class system that our country’s economy, employers and individuals all deserve.

By Neil Bates, Chair of Trustees at the Edge Foundation, the independent education charity dedicated to making education relevant for the 21st century.
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