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The ongoing need for developing not just higher level vocational qualifications and training, but also a way of providing that need is advanced by the new industrial strategy proposal. But responses to the strategy (albeit a Green Paper) already show the underwhelming response to what could have been a new vision of how skills are developed in workplaces, in colleges, and how they support individuals and communities in all phase of life. And, perhaps more to the point, how such a vision of skill formation will benefit a low productivity economy seeking to enter new trade agreements. If we get it wrong we will need to import such skills, an irony too great to not note.

As for the Strategy itself and, as others have pointed out, the end aim is fairly clear, it’s just the means that’s the problem (Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute). A flaw that would spoil any strategic aim however worthy.Where are skills developed best?
And the assumption that higher level vocational learning must be sited in a new provider (Institutes of Technology) is questionable (again, not because of the ambition, but the pragmatics of what might work). If Institutes of Technology had been the centrepiece of the recent Area Based Reviews that would have made much more sense, but they weren’t. So, £170 million to create new institutions when we have 221 FE colleges who vociferously argue, quite rightly, for more funding is at least a questionable one. The trouble is we have seen many variations of how to do this and Andy Westwood’s Blog  in response to the Strategy does a good job of reminding us of these as well.

Then the question arises about the skills themselves and ‘where’ they are developed best? This is a fundamental question posed by Mark Dawe (CEO, AELP). While the Skills Plan (2016) intimated that there would be substantial work placements for 11 of the 15 routes (the other four being apprenticeship routes), we currently have nothing like the capacity, procedures or ‘know how’ to give learners the best and most enriching experiences in such skill development plans. Exemplary cases do not make a consistent and thought through system of vocational education and training pedagogy and curriculum. So, to imagine that ‘skills’ are formed in workshops some of the time and in workplaces some of the time is fairly imprecise and not exactly a robust educational infrastructure.

Until we really know how the right skills are developed we need to hold off the construction of new bright shiny buildings with lots of promise but, like times past, being warehoused after 5 years – like most of the supporting agencies around them. (ATL, working with AELP and ET Foundation) is attempting to get intelligence on how such skills are formed in workplaces.)

Suggesting that Institutes of Technology can take up the ‘promise’ of delivering such routes is not really serious. £170 million is not enough to develop such an infrastructure (Chris Jones, Chief Executive, City and Guilds Group).

So, what does the college infrastructure look like now? David Hughes (CEO) of Association of Colleges says there is a real need to fund colleges fairly (compared to schools) so that they can support learners more consistently, their workforces and have the capacity to deliver such skills policies. Leaving colleges to the vagaries of future funding formulas or shifting budgets (such as the adult skills budget) without a by your leave simply renders the vast amount of colleges exposed to more contingency planning and less confidence to innovate.

Is the proposal to develop new Institutes of Technology really a slap in the face for these colleges? Of course, until we know what IoTs look like and how they are governed it is anyone’s guess what shape they will ultimately take – if any. A point reinforced by Chris Jones (Chief Executive, City and Guilds Group), that we may be looking at a simple rebranding of FE college centres.Taking higher level vocational education and training seriously would have seen an Industrial Strategy proposal that would have avoided such significant and critical observations from leading stakeholders. It’s time the government took vocational education and training seriously full stop and developed more thought through policies or, at least, one's that joined up.

One point worth ending on – and it is one that ATL would emphasise – is the crucial importance of the workforce in delivering higher level vocational education and training. For the new technical education routes are an opportunity for the workforce to help drive up the status of the sector and to raise public perceptions of their skills and expertise. Skills that, at the moment, are often hidden or not known enough about. Gary MacLean, an FE lecturer and winner of Masterchef, was met with blank looks from the judges when talking about FE and how it supported catering skills and students.

But, Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says the Strategy will be formed from the perspectives of employers and workers. And David Hughes (AoC) says we need to develop workforce capacity and fund it, as does Stephen Evans (Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute). But where is the counterpart to the Industrial Strategy around workforce skills themselves?
Who trains the trainers and how? Where is the step up of CPD for the workforce? Where is the capacity building to deliver higher vocational education and training? And how, precisely, do the workers give their voice about upskilling as ‘partners’ in this great enterprise? The end is great, the means are lowly.

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

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