As we enter the last week of the general election it is interesting to see - and really positive - that both parties are taking seriously post 16 education and training.
But the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of how vocational education and training should be shaped and how it fits with schools, employers and universities.
We have seen for some time now how the Conservatives believe that ‘employer led’ policies will support VET, now renamed Technical and Professional Education (TPE), and that positioning experienced employer stakeholders at the heart of policy formation is key to that idea.
A positive view of those ideas would agree that vocational education and training does need a high status route that could match the academic - hence A levels are matched by T levels. And the involvement of employers can only be a good thing if we are to develop high quality and meaningful employability for young and old alike.
However, a criticism would be that T levels need coupling to a secondary school curriculum much more firmly in order to enhance their status as a progression route. Secondly, that employers while significant to developing workforce expertise are not necessarily best placed to do that without some checks and balances. But while ‘over 40% of businesses have no business plans, half have no training plan and two thirds have no training budget,’ (UKCES (2009) Ambition 2020) it is hard to see what employers (as an aggregate) are bringing to the table on this evidence..
The Conservative policy has some potentially unintended outcomes for they would appear to drive a wedge (rather than provide a ladder) between the academic route and the promise of technical and professional education. With the reintroduction of selection (grammar schools), and asking universities and independent schools to help run state schools, we have a clear intent to focus schools on the academic route. Added to this the current aim of expecting 90% of pupils to enter for the EBacc by 2025 would all seem to offer further deterrence to an aspirational T level route.
So governance structures and school linkage still look decidedly weak in this manifesto. What about post 16 structures themselves? A lot of criticism has been directed at the failure of UTCs to be sustainable and to meet expectations and yet there is no shift on policy here.
Similarly, from a Sixth Form perspective, there is no shift in policy. The consequences of the area reviews mean that a number of sixth forms will become academies and while stakeholders agree on maintaining a sector identity the sustainability of that over time is questionable. I say that because the Conservative government appear wedded to institutional proliferation while, at the same time, supporting an aspirational ethos. How one squares the circle of a comprehensive aspirational ethos and support for institutional differentiation is hard to see in a society that is also evidencing major inequalities between the very rich and poor.
‘Establish institutes of technology in every major English city.’ Conservative Manifesto
The idea is that the English ‘dual’ system will begin at 16 with the introduction of T levels - 15 fifteen routes of sub-degree ‘technical’ level curriculum areas. The level of such qualifications is aimed to be level 3, and that means that they are aiming for learners who ‘could’ have done A levels but were not really suited to them for one reason or another, or, more likely, those who are currently doing A levels but do not see a relevant alternative and, finally, they may be for those who would like to progress into specific employment areas. The new T levels do come with the promise of being directly relevant to the labour market (after all it is employers who will be at the centre of their design).
It has to be said that the space of T levels is needed and that few doubt this ambition. The problem is in the design of the curriculum, the implementation of that curriculum and the coherence of how that curriculum will fit and develop over time.
One thing for sure is that there are some areas that real ambition is seen in the policy. Whether one agrees with the establishment of further institutions in the post 16 sector the promise of a high quality, university supported, institute of technology, would appear to be a positive move.
‘they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.’ Conservative Manifesto
And, not to leave out our improving and developing FE colleges: ‘We will invest in further education colleges to make sure they have world-class equipment and facilities and will create a new national programme to attract experienced industry professionals to work in FE colleges.’ Conservative Manifesto
Further intentions are also positive: ‘We will increase the number of teaching hours by thirty per cent to an average of 900 hours per year and make sure that each student does a three-month work placement as part of their course. And we will extend our reforms to the highest levels of technical qualification.’
Finally, a sting in the tail:
‘To ensure that further, technical and higher education institutions are treated fairly, we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country.’ Conservative Manifesto
The answer to the ‘funding’ priority, highlighted by Sainsbury, appears to be the same as other areas of the public sector. The individual must pay their part.
The Labour party have had some time to consider how they would begin again with the skills agenda after the major failed attempt at reform around the Diplomas. However, the snap election called by the Prime Minister has cut short those deliberations. Whether that is in the best interest of the country is for others to consider.
Labour agrees with Sainsbury that funding must be readdressed and they begin in an opposing position to the Conservatives around ‘who’ pays for education and training.
‘Labour would introduce free, lifelong education in Further Education (FE) colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in life.’ Labour Manifesto
This is a vision that places social need at the level of social responsibility. If we want skills as a society then we all play our part in paying for it - but it’s not the onus of the individual to take that risk (as the current loan systems or tuition fees do).
In regard to the development of new institutes of technology, the response is to consolidate our improving colleges:
‘Our skills and training sector has been held back by repeated reorganisation, which deprives providers, learners and employers of the consistency they need to assess quality. Labour would abandon Conservative plans to once again reinvent the wheel by building new technical colleges, redirecting the money to increase teacher numbers in the FE sector.’ Labour Manifesto
Labour also agrees with Sainsbury on the need for sustainable funding:
‘To implement the Sainsbury recommendations, we would correct historic neglect of the FE sector by giving the sector the investment – in teachers and facilities – it deserves to become a world-leading provider of adult and vocational education.’ Labour Manifesto
Funding would correct the post 16 disparity and so ‘funding for 16 to18-year-olds in line with Key Stage 4 baselines, while ensuring that the budget is distributed fairly between colleges and school sixth forms.’
Labour would also reintroduce regulation around teacher standards with professional qualifications being a requirement to teach. And, further, supporting those who teach and train in the private sector (‘vocational educators’ a term ATL uses in our ULF project for those who educate, train or develop those in the workplace) to attain those qualifications.
While there are some common ideas here around T levels, apprenticeships as a singularly important route and the apprenticeship levy, there are major differences both politically and educationally.
The Conservatives see individuals as bearing the cost and the risk of developing their skills and expertise. They see employers as determining what is needed, but they also see employers as needing to contribute via the apprenticeship levy. In turn, the state also plays a part in facilitating how individuals can access opportunities and ensuring that the education and training system is fit for purpose.
Labour sees society as bearing the cost of skill development (ending tuition fees, learner loans, reintroducing EMA) but also recognises that employers are a key stakeholder to engage with and that their financial contributions via the levy are a part of the new social contract around education and training.
Another clear difference is the positive role that Labour sees the Trade Unions as having in developing industrial strategies and policies around skills. Finally, the shape of the post 16 sector would appear to be more coherent and cohesive under Labour with its reluctance to develop new institutions to deliver T levels or sub-degree programmes. They also seek to consult on an integration of lifelong learning and degree level learning pathways.
A plague on both houses?
The key problem in both manifestos is on the singular notion that the broader set of vocational education and training qualifications and accreditations are not located in a clear space. The Conservatives assume that T levels will arise from the vocational ash of the ebacc. Labour assumes that an appeal to a broader school curriculum and a lifelong learning agenda will amend the wedge that the T levels will introduce.
Both parties, on this single issue, are, ironically, constructing the German problem of ‘transition.’
The German dual system has clear and coherent routes into employment (apprenticeship) or university with the latter being the most sought after, socially. However, those students who cannot make it on to either track ‘churn’ in the system without clear progression or ways out. But it has also been put that such incoherence may also be the result of learner aspirations and changes to the wider labour market - the low skilled or not recognised labour market (eg retail in Germany… the area Lord Sainsbury thought needed no ‘technical’ expertise). It is this incoherent educational space that the T levels and the ebacc / A levels are now unintentionally forging between them….and, what is more, which makes up the core of our FE provision. Why we should take this very seriously indeed is that in such incoherent spaces we may well find the greatest evidence of inequalities in our society.
Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)