Bill Jones, Deputy CEO of Luminate Education Group, considers the government’s plans for a British Baccalaureate and a network of ‘elite’ technical institutes.
A greater focus on vocational education, to show our young people that there are real alternatives to the ‘school-A levels-university’ route, is key to addressing the country’s skills gap and boosting productivity.
To that extent, the government’s plans to introduce a new post-16 qualification with a more vocational focus, in the form of a ‘British Baccalaureate’, are welcome – at least in principle.
The proposals, reportedly a central part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s push to improve education and skills, are still at an early stage and we have yet to hear details of what exactly this baccalaureate will consist of. (The Prime Minister may also need to rethink the new qualification’s name, given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all control their own education systems under devolved powers).
If the move does, as intended, result in providing a broader range of academic and vocational qualifications for 16-18 year olds then that would be a step in the right direction.
It is harder, however, to find merit in some of the other plans Mr Sunak has for Further Education (FE). The Prime Minister reportedly believes that creating a network of ‘elite’ technical institutions is key to transforming the vocational sector, closing the skills gap and, ultimately, boosting the country’s productivity.
No room for elitism in levelling up
There is some confusion about what exactly the PM means by this. If it involves creating a select line of new further education institutes, then that would be a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money – and at a time when finances are already incredibly tight.
It would also be introducing an elitist model that would be very hard to reconcile with a society, and education system, that should be committed to helping everyone achieve. (A goal which the government, at least ostensibly through its Social Mobility Commission, believes in).
If, however, Mr Sunak was actually – as Skills Minister Robert Halfon has claimed – talking about a further rollout of the Institutes of Technology programme, then that is something we could get behind. Because Institutes of Technology, involving further education colleges, universities and local employers working together to increase the uptake of STEM skills, are based on exactly the kind of collaborative approach we have been championing for years.
Whichever option turns out to be the case, the government has to realise that the most important, and cost-effective, step it can take to actually help the country level up is by investing further in our existing colleges.
After all, many of our FE colleges already have the strong industry links which Mr Sunak, rightly, deems to be so important.
Collaboration and industry links are key
Our colleges within Luminate Education Group, along with others across Yorkshire and beyond, are already delivering world-class technical, vocational and academic education and training to young people and adults in our communities.
And our apprenticeship schemes, higher technical, T Level and other courses are giving students vital industry experience, helping to create a highly skilled workforce. With more investment in areas like these, there is no limit to what we could achieve.
We are also working tirelessly to build and strengthen close bonds with local employers to ensure we are developing students who are equipped with the skills they most need.
A socially mobile population is essential to a strong economy too, and in this area colleges – by giving everyone a chance to excel, ensuring no-one is left behind – play a vital role.
That often starts by welcoming people of all ages, at all kinds of different stages in their journey, and helping them fulfil their potential. From those who have achieved the very best grades when leaving school through to those who are still really just starting off, educationally, and require the stepping stones of Level 1 and 2 qualifications. The aim is to ensure that everyone can aim as high as possible, despite where they have started from and any disadvantages they may still be facing.
What is needed to ensure we reach the next level, and boost national productivity, is not some new two-tier system featuring a selection of ‘elite’ government-picked institutions that would, inevitably, end up being pitted against the rest.
The solution is much simpler, more achievable and less divisive. We need an investment across our FE colleges so we can recruit and retain excellent, industry-experienced teachers, as well as provide world class accommodation, resources and facilities. This will allow us to do our job and deliver the quality skills training that our region, and country, so desperately needs.