David Robinson, report author and Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute

How technical education in England compares with leading nations: Government must go further with technical education reforms, or risk falling further behind 

  • The funding gap between technical and academic education in the UK as a whole is considerable, with technical education routes receiving 23% less funding than academic routes.   
  • In sharp contrast to the UK context, other nations fund technical education at a higher rate than academic, including Austria (26%) and the Netherlands and Germany (37%).
  • Recent government funding increases of £400m for 16-19 education only reverse a quarter of cuts to the sector since 2010/11.
  • The lack of funding for technical education in England is also reflected in less generous student support: government bursary funding to students decreased by 71% per student between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
  • Technical courses are typically cheaper to run than those offered in leading countries – fewer more expensive courses, such as engineering, are available to students in England.
  • Technical education courses in England are of short duration, and the curriculum is one of the narrowest in the developed world: unlike England, other countries continue with maths, languages and other subjects at this level. This narrow approach may be depriving students of valuable skills.  
  • The government’s technical education reforms, including the new T levels, are a positive development, but the reforms do not go far enough: course length, quality and employer links must be addressed if England is to match provision in high performing nations.

A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) "An international comparison of technical education funding systems - What can England learn from successful countries?" undertakes a comprehensive comparison of technical education in England and the UK with other developed countries.

The government has recently set out ambitious plans to improve the quality of technical education in England. Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has set a goal to “overtake Germany” within a decade.

This research considers how far England is behind leading nations, and what reforms would be necessary in order to match their technical education offer. The study examines the approach of leading technical education nations at upper secondary level (age 16-19) to funding, qualifications, student support and the curriculum.  

Key findings

Technical vs academic funding: how does England compare with leading European nations?

  • The UK has one of the largest funding gaps between academic and technical education: technical students receive 23% less funding than academic students. This is in stark contrast with several other developed countries, where the reverse is common.
  • Overall, the average spend of OECD countries is 16% more per technical student than per academic student. Funding per technical student in Austria is 26% higher than for academic students, and 37% higher in both the Netherlands and Germany.
  • Technical education funding per student is lower in the UK than the OECD average: in 2016, the UK as a whole spent £6,990 per student on average vs an OECD average of £8,080.
  • Recent data shows that 16-19 education in England has seen a huge funding squeeze: between 2010-11 and 2018-19, real terms funding per student in sixth forms and colleges fell by 16%. Whilst recent government funding of £400m is focused on technical education, it will only reverse a quarter of these cuts.
  • In England, technical courses tend to be of shorter duration than comparable courses in leading developed countries, and are less expensive to run. There are fewer students enrolling in high-cost courses such as engineering, manufacturing, and construction.

Technical students receive less financial support in England

  • The lack of funding for technical education in England is also reflected in less generous student support: government bursary funding to students decreased by 71% per student between 2010/11 and 2018/19.
  • For apprenticeships, there are also less generous subsidies given to employers to pay for training, compared to leading European nations.

Technical education at upper secondary level in England is uniquely short, and its narrow curriculum may be depriving students of valuable skills 

  • England is an international outlier with an upper secondary education offer of just two years (and one year for many apprenticeships). The new T levels will also take two years to complete. This compares with Austria, where some programmes last as long as five years, Denmark (around four years) and Norway (four years).
  • The curriculum for students studying technical education at age 16-19 in England is very narrow compared to other countries. While leading technical education nations see students continuing to study languages, maths, and other general subjects to help them prepare for the labour market or further study, there is no such universal requirement in England.
  • Broadening the curriculum in England would likely require increased levels of funding: across leading nations, higher funding levels for 16-19 education are associated with a broad curriculum.  

What reforms are needed for England to become a leader in technical education?

To narrow the technical education gap, the government should:

  1. Review funding for technical pathways: while the government has pledged to address academic-technical imbalances, proposed funding increases of £400m still leave funding at a lower level than the past, and far lower than leading technical nations.
  2. Increase the number of 16-19 apprenticeship starts: starts among 16-19 students are already very low by international standards. Half of students opt for a technical pathway in England, but just 16% of these take up an apprenticeship, compared to 27% across the EU. The government should consider further redistribution of apprenticeship levy funds towards younger apprentices, and other incentives to encourage the hiring of younger workers.
  3. Review the adequacy of student support: leading technical education nations provide more generous student support at age 16-19 than in England. While targeted funding is available for the most disadvantaged students, bursary funding has fallen significantly since 2010/11.
  4. Reconsider curriculum breadth and the length of technical courses: while there are positive developments, such as the introduction of T levels, including increased teaching hours and industry placements, England’s 16-19 curriculum remains an outlier among developed nations for its narrow breadth. The government should commission an independent review to consider whether these narrow upper secondary pathways are providing the right skills for young people.

Commenting on the new report, David Robinson, report author and Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute, said:

“This research highlights the gulf between England and successful technical education nations. The government’s recent reforms, including the new T levels, are a step in the right direction, but policies must go further if we are to be considered a leader in Europe”.  

“If it wishes to draw level with countries like Germany, the government must give further consideration to properly funding technical education, in order to sustain quality. We must also ask serious questions about the structure of our upper secondary programmes, which are uniquely narrow and short by international standards. The breadth of the curriculum and length of technical courses should be reviewed."

Rt Hon. David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said:

"This report highlights that technical education beyond secondary school age has typically been poorly funded in England, compared with other countries and other phases of education. There has also been a good deal of policy change and instability, including around post-16 qualifications. If the government wants to deliver on its aspirations in this area, these weaknesses need urgently addressing."

Association of Colleges (AoC) Chief Executive, David Hughes said:

“Today’s report from the EPI shows that the education system is still placing too much emphasis on academic pathways for young people. It’s a great route which takes a minority of young people from good GCSEs to good A Levels and into a residential Bachelors’ degree. For the majority of young people this is not working, nor will it ever work. We are at best ignoring and at worst neglecting the majority of learners needs, talents and life chances.
 
"It’s no secret that funding cuts to colleges have hit technical subjects really hard. We’re now seeing the impact on hard to fill job vacancies and employers worried about where they will find the skills they need. We want to see greater investment and a new approach from the Government, working with colleges and employers together to boost technical education and training in England. That will require clearer pathways for young people who don’t go on to university at 18, but which play to their talents and aspirations and support them into productive and fulfilling careers."

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) says:

“The falling starts in apprenticeships for young people and at intermediate level have been the most disappointing aspect of the apprenticeship reforms in this country.  Therefore it’s not surprising that EPI has found that we are now significantly behind the EU average in terms of programme participation and this is why next week in his Budget, the Chancellor needs to find an extra £1.5bn to fund more opportunities in SME employers who traditionally offer the most places to young people.”

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) comments:

“This is a welcome report which provides a comprehensive statistical analysis of where England sits in comparison to some of our main European competitors. It is important, however, not to be overly pessimistic about the state of English technical education. On a number of measures outlined in the report, England performs well above the EU average. NEET levels and youth unemployment rates, for example, are amongst some of the lowest in the EU. Similarly, Germanic and some of the continental systems of apprenticeship and technical education are made possible for largely cultural reasons: In England, for example, we do not ’track’ pupils at the ages of eleven and fourteen into distinctive academic or vocational tracks, as is commonplace in so-called leading systems of technical education. 

“The biggest elephant in the room, in England, is the inequitable balance of funding for 16-18 year olds below Level 3, compared to funding for post-19-year-olds studying for bachelor degrees. That’s why FAB has called on the government to show some caution in its post-16 review of qualifications below Level 3. The Secretary of State is running the danger of kicking the ladder of opportunity away from young people if his department is not careful. We would support the Education Policy Institute’s recommendation in the report, that the government needs to independently review these pathways and qualifications instead of pursuing only the narrow choices associated with T-Levels. We’d like to see three high quality pathways for young people in future: academic, applied technical and work-based training, including apprenticeships. Finally, we should remember that Switzerland sends nearly two-thirds of its young people onto apprenticeships. England is currently headed in the opposite direction. The only way to arrest this trend will be to target apprenticeship funding in the future on the under-25s without a degree and to better incentivise employers.”

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, responding to the latest report from the Education Policy Institute, said:

“Devastating Tory cuts to further education have pushed the sector in to crisis, with a generation of young people facing narrow curriculums, falling staff numbers, and fewer opportunities as a result.

 

“The small increase in funding they have offered will leave the vast majority of their cuts in place, and leave further education in crisis. The Chancellor must use next week’s Budget to urgently give this vital sector the funding that it needs.”

 

Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson, Layla Moran said:

“The Conservatives have left our colleges are underfunded and unloved. Rather than keeping up with our European neighbours, college students in England are being left behind. They’re being taught fewer subjects for fewer hours, whilst support for the most disadvantaged students is woeful.
 
“Boris Johnson must use the Budget to show his commitment to further education. Liberal Democrats have been calling on the Government to raise the rate that colleges are paid, ditch VAT for colleges and extend the pupil premium to college students.
 
“We want every young person, no matter where they study, to have the skills they need to succeed in life.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“For all the talk from Gavin Williamson and the Conservative Government about the importance of technical and vocational education, it is clear that much more must be done. Commitments to T-levels, specialist maths colleges and ‘Institutes of Technology’ are not enough to reverse the historic underfunding of FE colleges. Nor will their post-16 reforms succeed while the nation’s schools are increasingly tasked with a relentless focus on drilling pupils with academic subjects until they turn 16.

“If Government is serious about the importance of technical education then it must learn from this challenging report. Our 16-19-year-old students need sustainable funding, not piecemeal initiatives; they need real support for their living, learning and travelling costs; and they need a curriculum that is broad, relevant and challenging.”

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