Lal Tawney, Whitecap’s Practice Lead for Education

The Further Education sector finds itself on the cusp of disruption, and part of the solution lies in in lessons we can learn from the German education system. 

It’s no secret that the Further Education system in England needs reform. Known as the “collapsed lung” of the education system, funding for 16-18 year-olds has been neglected to the tune of 12% in real terms, at a loss of 1 million learners (from 3.1 million to 2.1 million), while adult education funding has fallen by two-thirds (Institute for Fiscal Studies).

But Gavin Williamson’s arrival at the Department of Education and his July announcement of a government White Paper in the Autumn is changing the tide.

The White Paper will set out plans to build a world-class, “German-style” further education system in Britain.

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, skills will be more important than ever, and key to rebuilding the economy will be Further Education, to grow a workforce for the re-building of the economy.

In his announcement speech, Gavin Williamson said of Further Education:

“Its ability to offer flexible, practical training that leads directly to jobs is exactly what this country needs.”

“The development of technical and vocational skills, the greater embedding of digital skills – will be vital to charting our course to recovery. There will be a tremendous need for upskilling, reskilling and retraining. Getting people back into work as quickly as possible.”

But what can we learn from the German-style model of Education? Three positives from this model and three critical success factors:

Three Positive Take Outs:

1. Strong Emphasis on and Importance of “Technical” Skills

It’s worth reflecting on the education systems in Germany – specifically how technical skills are part of the curriculum and national psyche from an early age.

Although there are differences from state to state, some generalisations are possible. Children attend “Kindergarten” and then “Grundschule”, before, age 10, they decide which kind of school they will go to, and to a certain extent which path in life they will take.

Advised by their ‘Grundschule” teachers, children and their parents have three options:

  1. Hauptschule – Vocational Courses, and Academic Courses taught at a slower pace; combining school with apprenticeship training.
  2. Realschule – Vocational and Academic Courses which lead to part-time vocational schools and higher vocational schools.
  3. Gymnasium – The Gymnasium leads to a diploma called the Abitur and prepares students for university study or for a dual academic and vocational credential. Students have the option to attend a Technical Gymnasium, leading to combination of academic and vocational skills.

In several federal states, the Gesamtschule or comprehensive school has become an alternative to the traditional three tier model up to Year 10.

Regardless of the school attended, the student must complete at least 10 years of education. This way, every child leaves qualified – whether for a skilled job, further training or study.  The emphasis in Germany, then, is on leaving school prepared for the next stage of life and a career path in sight, as well as with a set of qualifications.

The key positive take out is that students are given the option to pursue an academic or vocational path with a greater emphasis on technical skills.

Our Government has already gone some way to make this shift to technical skills. The Apprenticeship Levy offers businesses grants to take on apprentices; T-Levels will be an alternative to A-Levels, focussed on skills for employment; and Employer Led standards rather than ‘grades’ will now be the measure of achievement for Apprenticeships.

The government needs to successfully communicate the value of a technical qualification to drive the number of applicants higher. Already, five years after completion, the average Higher Technical Apprentice earns more than the average graduate, while 34% of our graduates are in non-graduate jobs, more than any other country in Europe except for Ireland and the Czech Republic. (Green and Henseke).

The realities of what a young person’s choice between Further and Higher Education will mean for their employment prospects must be made clear.

2. Colleges are Centres of Excellence

In Germany, colleges are well funded and well regarded; teachers are the highest paid proportionally in Europe and colleges are centres of high quality. In public secondary schools, Germany has a student-to-teaching-staff ratio of 14, while that ratio is 24 in the UK.

In his White Paper announcement, Gavin Williamson stated his intention to cultivate high standards and strong reputation for Further Education providers. He promised a commitment to colleges themselves as providers of Further Education, stating:

Colleges play a leading role in developing skills in their areas, driving an ambitious agenda that responds to local economic need and acting as centres for businesses and their development, they should:

  1. Be led by great leaders and governors who are drawn from local communities and businesses, and teaching staff who have already have experience working in and with industry…
  2. Have industry-grade equipment and modern buildings which are great places to learn in and which act as centres for business development and innovation…
  3. Deliver courses that are of the highest quality and which are tailored to the needs of employers and their local economies…
  4. Work with small, local businesses to support the introduction of new technology and processes, and offer training in emerging skills….
  5. Have a robust system of governance so that every college is financially secure, flexible and dynamic.

The Spring budget, too, committed to the country’s colleges, announcing an additional £1.5bn to upgrade the further education college estate. This is the largest capital investment in the sector in a generation.

3. High Productivity is a Clear Outcome

More University graduates does not necessarily mean a more economically prosperous country: while in the last ten years the proportion of graduates in the UK has risen to 35% (45% among the under-30s), productivity is lower and social mobility has arguably seen little improvement.

In Germany it’s a different story: the number of students going to University is smaller than the OECD average, but around half of each year go on to do a three-year apprenticeship with a company instead, of which they spent 50% “on the job” and 50% at a vocational training school. But in 2016, on a current price gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked basis, UK productivity in 2016 was lower than that of Germany by 26.2%, with the gap narrowing from 26.8% in 2015.

Germany’s focus, again, is on best-fit employment and maximising the skills potential of each individual. Our government’s moves to improve Further Education must replicate this – the new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund is a positive step with the intention to get more people working, and give those already in the workforce the chance to train for higher skilled jobs.

Three Critical Success Factors:

However, Further Education in England needs more than just financial investment. It’s about infrastructure and support, rather than a numbers quota. There considerations to moving towards a German style model into the English Education system.

1. Businesses need to be fully involved

Setting up qualifications that apply to a specific career and co-ordinated with a specific employer require strong engagement with businesses as well a supporting model to be successful.

In a recent article, Philip Oltermann noted:

“The German dual system requires a high level of complex coordination between:

  • The employers who pay the trainee’s wages,
  • The federal states that fund vocational training schools tailored to the needs of local industry,
  • The unions that feed into the curriculum, and
  • The chambers of trade and industry that carry out the exams at the end.”

2. Flexibility in the student journey must be considered

The German model divides children in to three education streams at just ten years old. This, in the end, produces highly specialised workers that fit exactly the requirements for employers in Germany, keeping productivity high and the Skills Gap under control.

But while it pushes the country to optimum productivity, there is a degree of restriction in the current system that means that should individuals change their mind or improve their grades, they are limited on where they can go.

Such strict career paths can focus young people on a clear direction, but leaves little room for those who don’t know what they want to do or where their talents can be best applied. Although the country is getting better, and it is now possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to a Gymnasium on graduation. This flexibility is important when considering how a German-style model might work best in the UK.

3. Collaboration with the Higher Education sector is key

As our Government has torn up the target for 50 per cent of young people to go to university and is bringing a renewed focus on the Further Education sector, there needs to be recognition of the benefit that collaboration between colleges and universities can bring to meet the education, skills and training needs of every adult across their lives.

There a number of already a number of “Learning Ecosystems” in the UK where schools, FE providers and HE providers work together in a geographical area to create seamless provision.

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, skills will be more important than ever, and Further Education will be key to growing the workforce necessary to rebuild the economy.

We look forward to the White Paper in Autumn, which will set out “plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.”

Lal Tawney, Whitecap’s Practice Lead for Education

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