The publication of the Government’s Industrial Strategy white paper is a significant event.
The strategy, the first of its kind in a generation, articulates how business and government working in partnership can weather the post-Brexit storm. We know that Brexit is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the UK economy. Investing in training and skills will be vital for employers both large and small as they are faced with uncertainty about the future shape of their workforce. It is therefore welcome to see that the strategy foregrounds the role of technical education in creating the kind of economy that we need.
The strategy highlights the positive aspects of the UK economy, but also the systemic weaknesses: low-productivity, skills gaps in key sectors, underinvestment in adult skills and retraining. On these accounts the analysis of our present economic situation is lucid and insightful. Yet when it comes to the proposed solution, this strategy represents only the starting point.
The strategy is comprehensive: 254 pages, including footnotes! So, I would not propose to cover it all. But I do want to reflect on some initial observations as to where further detail is needed, specifically as it relates to the role that colleges will play in making this vision a reality.
The emphasis on creating a robust and credible technical pathway is vitally important and FE colleges will be vital to bring this new system into being. Learners will need to be given a genuine choice with access to full and relevant information. The commitment, therefore, to update school and college performance measures to ensure that students can make an informed choice between technical or academic education is welcome. To compete with our European neighbours, the UK has a significant cultural barrier into overcome: learners need to be assured that the technical route affords them with equal opportunities for progression and employment when compared to traditional academic based routes. If we are going to truly rise to the challenge, technical education needs to be open to all.
The strategy talks about delivering a world-class technical education system with a £500 million investment and increasing training hours by 50%. This is all great, but nothing that has not been announced previously. Similarly, the strategy talks about National colleges and Institutes of Technology— both good ideas in principle—but provides no evidence for an increased demand from industry for talent at L4/5. Some estimates show that the total number of higher technical learners studying at L4-5 is as low as 30,000. The strategy therefore proposes to undertake: “a review into higher level technical education at levels 4 and 5, considering the supply of, and demand for, quality higher-level classroom-based technical education.” A welcome development, but when it comes to new initiatives delivering at L4/5, is there a sense of deciding the policy first then finding the evidence base to fit around it? Don’t get me wrong, for the technical route to reach this feted parity status solid progression routes are needed, but they must be delivered by institutions working within a holistic system—having multiple new initiatives responding to the same driver without the evidence base seems a tad confused.
Then there is what the strategy doesn’t say about T-Levels. Like the T-level action plan, nothing is mentioned about this proposed transition period or what a model for the college based work placement element would look like. One model that Collab Group has developed in partnership with Government and industry is a sector based approach to the transition year and work placement question. This model aligns well with the industrial strategy.
On the transition period, we have been working with our colleges and Build UK to develop an innovative path into the construction industry which will prepare learners for a L3 programme such as a T-level or apprenticeship. The 9-month course will equip learners with a knowledge of all aspects of the construction process, from bidding and tendering, through to pre-construction, construction and post-construction. Now, our colleges are working to do something similar in collaboration with the technology sector.
On the work placement issue, we believe that the 20% mandate is restrictive; it should not be a blanket requirement but should be evaluated on a sectorial basis. We do think that all T-level qualifications must incorporate this work placement element, but flexibility is key. We appreciate that an official position of these issues will become clearer once the current DfE sponsored pilots and consultation exercises have concluded. But what it does show is that forward-thinking colleges working in collaboration with industry are starting to develop potential answers.
The broad strokes of the Industrial Strategy are welcome, but the detail will always be the sticking point. What is clear though, is that there are great opportunities available for further education to shape its own destiny, support the implementation of the industrial strategy and efforts to create a highly-skilled and dynamic British workforce.
Ian Pretty, CEO, Collab Group