It’s difficult not to see any announcements that come out of the Department for Education as prefiguring the post-18 review. We’re all guilty of a bit of entrail reading and kremlinology – with a sudden change in minister will we see a sudden change in priorities?
We know that Sam Gyimah was working hard behind the scenes to blunt some of the most painful potential proposals. Chris Skidmore remains an unknown quantity in this sphere. But decisions, so far as the DfE is subject to Number 10’s whims on this heavily politicised matter, fall to the Secretary of State.
Speaking at Battersea Power Station – the scene of many a government announcement about skills and industry – Damian Hinds appears to have taken the arguments of the skills sector lobby to heart.
Parity of esteem?
We always hear about parity of esteem at these moments – an Ed Miliband line that plays well but is light on detail. It’s a general aspiration that we should see non-degree routes to fulfilling and useful work as equivalent to their university counterparts. This is a simplistic way of seeing things and ignores a lot what universities actually do with locally targeted vocational provision.
The issue, arguably, is with variable quality careers advice, with (perverse) incentives for schools to get as many university applications as possible, and with unclear value placed on new vocational qualifications.
Unusually, this speech offered concrete interventions on each of these. It celebrated the work that has already been done in standardising and improving the careers offer. Although in a week that has seen repeated calls for an inquiry into the effectiveness and value for money of the Careers and Enterprise Company maybe this wasn’t the best line to take.
It’s now clearer that schools will be measured on the progression of their pupils to any form of accredited higher level study, not just into university. As Hinds put it:
I’m clear that the school that gets a young person onto a higher apprenticeship deserves as much praise as when it gets someone to university. To be clear, the message here is not don’t do a degree – the message is simply you don’t have to do a degree.
Coupling this with an agreement with UCAS on parity of esteem in the tariff for T levels and A levels sends a strong message. It doesn’t necessarily mean that universities will accord T levels parity of esteem – it is difficult to imagine the Russell Group updating Informed Choices, for example. The tariff is an optional tool designed to support the offer making process.
But there’s clearly been thinking about this at a departmental level. For what was a grid speech, aimed at demonstrating that the government is not entirely paralysed, there was a hell of a lot of policy detail. They’ve thought about the way in which people would move from a vocational to an academic stream. There’s consideration of local and national skill needs that goes far beyond the “learn to code” mantra that we usually get. They’re even linking to new industrial strategies.
Other people’s children
But, as Hinds observed, the “other people’s children” issue still looms large. Here DfE have taken a long-running and painfully accurate criticism and tried to incorporate it into their message.
Other people’s children – briefly stated – is the idea that we need a huge expansion in skills and vocational provision to meet our intermediate level skills needs as a country, but it’s other people’s kids that should take those courses. Because my kids are at Oxford, of course…
As Hinds puts it:
Behind all of this has been a bit of an attitude problem: as a nation I’m afraid we’ve been technical education snobs. We’ve revered the academic but treated vocational as second class – when we do it well, law, engineering, medicine – then we don’t even call it vocational.
Why has this has been tolerated for so long? I think the reason is the “O.P.C.” problem. For so many opinion formers, commentators and, yes, politicians: vocational courses are OPC courses: for other people’s children.”
Hinds then went on to not address the issue. Even Jo Johnson memorably claimed he’d be happy to see his children do apprenticeships.
What’s really going on?
But thinking back to the review and what’s going on behind the scenes. No official would do this amount of policy development just for a speech that is going to get buried behind the Brexit debate. The post-18 review looks at all aspects of provision, and – in Alison Wolf – includes a strong advocate for the FE system at its heart.
Localism and a light touch system of direct commissioning, takes us into a world of manpower planning that is far removed from the market-driven orthodoxy that characterises HE policy outside of medicine and dentistry. And just as we need more electroplaters, kitchen supervisors, and teaching assistants, we need more nurses, more social workers, and more teachers.
If the review is looking at the system as a whole, the idea of local and national skills planning in the skills sector suggests a similar approach could catch on for HE. If we need more nurses and more accountants why don’t we just train them? It’s demand led, it relies on longer-term planning, but it could very much be our future.
We still have to prove that a degree is the best way of delivering the employees of the future. And we need to get better at predicting these future workforce needs. Pro-tip: asking employers isn’t the whole story.