When is a white paper not a white paper? When it’s a Post-16 Skills Plan, perhaps. Today, the Independent Review of Technical Education has released its report, accompanied by the BIS Post-16 Skills Plan, which has accepted the former report’s recommendations in its entirety.
The proposals are perhaps the biggest ever shake-up to post-16 education and training in this country. It is somewhat bizarre that what we expected to be entitled the ‘Post-16 Skills White Paper’ is now merely the ‘Plan’, but the document carries all the features of a white paper as they are commonly understood: it presents a succession of ambitious government policy proposals to Parliament and the wider public.
The independent panel that drew up the proposals was chaired by Lord Sainsbury and its members included Steve West, Vice Chancellor of the UWE, and leading education thinker Alison Wolf of King’s College London. Although focusing primarily on ‘technical’ pathways as distinct from ‘academic’ and higher education pathways (more on this later), implementation of the report’s proposals will have significant implications for the size and shape of higher education, as well as how the sector approaches access and admissions.
What’s the problem?
It cannot be understated how technical education policy (a.k.a. vocational, VET, technical and professional etc.) has been one of the biggest failures of British governments of all parties for some decades. As Wolf has pointed out in successive policy papers, speeches, and her seminal 2002 work ‘Does Education Matter?’, British governments have been concerned about poor skills training, worker productivity, and ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic routes for the best part of a century. Since the 1980s, minister after minister has promised to revolutionise non-academic, non-university routes for the ‘other’ cohort of learners who do not progress in higher education. Review after review has been conducted, but little progress has been made.
The problems identified in today’s report bear some similarity to those identified in previous reviews of vocational education, including Wolf’s own review of 14-19 education in 2011. However, it recognises more explicitly the failures of previous reviews and reforms, stating that they have only “tinkered” with the system, and have failed to learn from far more successful countries’ systems such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries.
Here and elsewhere, the government is trying to confront some of the most fundamental problems that have afflicted technical education policy for some time. The current system has failed to account for young people’s choices in an increasingly uncertain and unstable labour market, leading to academic qualifications being the ‘safe’ choice. It has also failed to compel businesses to invest in training, upskilling or apprenticeships. The latter of these two problems is to be hit with the sledgehammer that is the apprenticeship levy. Tackling the former is a prime aim of today’s review.
The review – key points
The headline recommendation of introducing a choice between academic and technical pathways at 16 is significantly more flexible than it appears at first sight. This is probably not, as Labour’s Gordon Marsden has suggested, a rebadging of the eleven-plus. While learners will not be able to ‘mix and match’ academic and vocational qualifications at the same time; they will be able to switch from one to the other on completion at the age of 18. The report envisages that learners who have taken the technical route who wish to go to university will be able to do so by taking a ‘bridging’ course such as a Higher Education Diploma or a Foundation course. On the flipside, it wants to create an appealing form of bridging provision for students who take A-levels but do not wish to progress to university.
The 15 new technical routes, which will incorporate a broad range of study and training as well as English, Maths and ICT, are roughly modelled on models used in Denmark and the Netherlands. The routes are supposed to be more tailored towards industry needs as they specialise, but also equip students with general skills to have flexibility in further study and their careers. They are designed to be delivered either in the classroom or as apprenticeships, and the new Institute of Apprenticeships will have strategic oversight over the whole system (making its title somewhat of a misnomer).
Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care
Business and Administrative
Catering and Hospitality
Childcare and Education
Creative and Design
Engineering and Manufacturing
Hair and Beauty
Health and Science
Legal, Finance and Accounting
Sales, Marketing and Procurement
Transport and Logistics
One of the main aims of the system is to drastically reduce the amount of qualifications on offer, which the report argues has devalued the qualifications in the eyes of students, parents and employers. The report argues that the open market for vocational qualifications has led to a ‘race to the bottom’ in quality and standards, encouraging schools and colleges to take a ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ approach to perform well in league tables and obtain funding. It recommends that only one awarding body be permitted to design and award each qualification and that they be licensed to do so through what resembles a ‘franchising’ system comparable to rail operators.
Implications for higher education
Nearly a quarter of all higher education acceptances in 2015 had studied a vocational qualification alongside or instead of A levels. The changes proposed in the Sainsbury report, due to be phased in from 2019 to 2022, will mean further adjustment for higher education admissions following the phasing in of the reformed A levels and GCSEs. Medium and low entry tariff institutions may have to consider how many students they might be willing to accept from ‘bridging’ courses who have initially taken the technical route, or whether to stop expanding their intake.
With the crucial ‘vocational or academic’ decision now to be made at 16, the reforms may also force a reconsideration of access and outreach policy. The sector may need to do more work at an earlier age to convince demographics who are wary about aspiring to attend university, rather than relying on engagement post-GCSE.
The report’s recommendation on awarding bodies also raises some interesting questions about the direction of government policy. There have been rumours abound for a year or so that the government (somewhat paradoxically) has ambitions to cut down on the open market in awarding qualifications. The licensing process outlined in today’s report might lead to A Levels and GCSEs following a similar model down the line. Many in the university sector would welcome this, as it would mean new students have a consistent level of knowledge and skills on entry having all studied the same courses.
Finally, the Sainsbury report has asked the government to do further work to improve progression routes from levels 4 and 5 into degree apprenticeships and higher education at levels 6 and 7. This is something the sector should be keeping a close eye upon, and it may prove to be another area where established universities find themselves with both new market opportunities but also much more significant competition.