Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.

“If we are to overcome the divisions in society, all need to feel valued. We should stop talking about social mobility as a way of 'rescuing' people from working-class backgrounds and place more emphasis on valuing the full range of worthwhile occupations.” - Barnaby Lenon ‘Other People’s Children’ (2018.)

THE ACADEMIC-Vocational divide has bedevilled the UK’s educational system since Victorian times. Vocational education has for over a century been perceived as second best to a traditional academic curriculum by Britain’s elites.

For the ‘left behind’ urban towns of the North and the Midlands to prosper economically we must escape this mind-set and give the “new vocationalism” the status it deserves, University Technology Colleges (UTC) may be the answer.

As long ago as the Great Exhibition of 1851 weaknesses in Britain’s technical education had been noted by several commentators compared with Germany. Butler’s Education Act of 1944 established a post war tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools.

In reality what British society got was a divisive bipartite system with technical schools seen as the poor relation. Few were built by local councils after the war.

Although further education colleges have delivered the bulk of technical and job-related training from the age of 16 through apprenticeships, NVQs, City and Guilds and BTEC type certificates/diplomas, the sector has now been acknowledged by Britain’s ‘political class'.

Yet it’s still viewed by some private school and Oxbridge educated Ministers and senior Civil Servants as the Cinderella service for “other people’s children”.

Of-course FE still has a vitally important role to play to meet the needs of a changing economy and to address the aspirations of thousands of youngsters.

Contrary to popular belief, many working-class boys and girls still want to be sparkies, brickies, chefs, mechanics, travel agents, train drivers, airline cabin staff, firefighters, social care workers, nurses and hairdressers.

It was partly for this reason that University Technical Colleges came into being.

University Technical Colleges were the brainchild of Lords Baker and Dearing a decade ago. They still command cross party support.

Their mission was to help grow the “talent pipeline” by providing “the next generation of engineers, technicians and scientists”.

Designed for young people aged 14 to 19, UTCs were to deliver a predominately vocational education alongside academic subjects. Backed by large employers and the new universities UTCs aimed to give young people the technical skills that industry needed.

They focus on technical specialisms such as healthcare, computer science, renewable energy and marine engineering. They are non-selective and non-fee-paying. They have a longer school day, starting at 8,30a, and finishing at 5pm, to give their learners the ethos of a working environment.

There are now 50 UTCS with two in the North East – one in Newcastle and the other in Co. Durham. Another is due to open in the de-industrialised town of Doncaster.

Yet their implementation has been uneven and patchy with several hit by closures, poor recruitment, negative Ofsted inspections, bad press, below average GCSE results and a stark gender imbalance with an under-representation of young women.

Till recently UTCs have struggled to recruit pupils aged 14. Few pupils want to change schools having made friends from the age of 11. With funding a priority few schools want their students to leave. Most schools start their GCSE courses in year 9 – therefore some pupils are reluctant to change school for a UTC.

There’s some evidence to suggest that youngsters who attend UTCs are more likely to come from low-income family backgrounds having made poor progress in primary school.

The low Progress 8 scores of youngsters, failed by a traditonal educational system, hinder Ofsted ratings further. By 2016, six of 10 UTCs had been rated by Ofsted as either “inadequate” or requiring improvement. Between 2013 to 2017, seven UTCs closed, despite costing £10m each to set up.

For the radical left they have been dismissed as vanity projects that don’t work. For others they were brought in too fast without adequate preparation and planning. But that doesn’t mean they are a bad idea. As Barnaby Lenon argues, “we need to value head, hand and heart, not just cognitive ability.”

For some pupils a traditional academic education manifested in a rigid national curriculum is a big turn-off by the time they reach 14. Some under-achieve. Kids of low-skilled parents still leave school with poor qualifications.

According to Major and Elliot in their book, ‘Social Mobility and Its Enemies’ hundreds of thousands of youngsters leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Other’s simply don’t turn up for school and end up as young NEETS. A more vocational type curriculum combined with some academic subjects may meet their needs and cut truancy rates at the same time.

Although unemployment has fallen sharply since 1975, 1.4 million are still jobless in 2018. Hidden unemployment is estimated by the TUC to be well over 2m.

Marginalised groups, such as those with mental health issues or with learning disabilities, alongside the unskilled working class over-50s remain excluded from the labour market.

According to research by Robin Simmons of Huddersfield University 808,000 young adults aged 16 to 24 are NEET – not in education, employment or training. This figure has started to rise again with more young men experiencing NEET than women.

UTCs working in partnership with FE colleges, apprenticeship agencies, local authorities and devolved assemblies may be the way forward.

Despite their bad press, last year:

  • 97% of 18-year olds leaving UTCs progressed to higher education, work or an apprenticeship.
  • 2% took a gap year.
  • Only 1% became NEET. The national NEET rate today is 11%.

In their report “Productivity and Lifetime Earnings of Apprentices and Graduates” Barclays discovered that apprentices can earn up to 270% more over their lifetime than university graduates.

The average graduate earns less five years (with a £50k student debt) after graduation than a Level 5 apprentice two years after completion.

Over half of graduates from ‘low tariff’ universities like Teesside or Sunderland are in non-graduate jobs.

Subjects crucial to the nation’s economic success in the growing digital and creative industries are less likely to be studied in secondary schools.

According to the qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, the number of GCSE entries in design and technology has dropped by 42%. Entries in computing and ICT have fallen. The numbers of entries for A-level or BTEC National level 3 in engineering has collapsed to just 10% across the country.

T-levels, to give parity of esteem to A-levels, don’t come on stream till 2020 and to few parents, kids and SMEs are aware of them. Yet employers and civic leaders complain of skill shortages.

To help overcome pervasive and endemic snobbery over the value and worth of trades and skilled jobs UTCs need to be actively supported by all to become high quality, high status providers of technical and vocational education.

As Barnaby Lenon notes they are a “good idea”. They have a crucial role to play in a post-Brexit economy outside London and the South East. In the future they may have to adapt by taking students aged 13 or 16.

Stephen Lambert, Newcastle City Councillor and former FE lecturer who taught on vocational programmes in Health and Social Care and Public Services at Bishop Auckland College, Co Durham. He writes in a personal capacity.

Copyright © 2018 FE News

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