There should be a fund to support technical teaching excellence

Chris Hall makes the case for government to fund the development of specialist teaching of higher technical qualifications.

Chris Hall is a policy adviser in the higher education sector.

“The technician embodies both theory and practice, knowledge and skill, facts and acts – bringing the hand and mind together.”

I wrote this some years ago whilst I was working with Sir Mike Tomlinson on a policy paper on pathways and teaching in 14-19 education. Legislation to raise the participation age was almost through Parliament and there were concerns about whether teaching reform was running in parallel to qualification reform. If there was going to be an expansion in vocational and technical options, did we have the teaching workforce able to deliver these programmes – in the specific and distinct way the quote above suggests.

Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) present a similar question: are they being delivered alongside funding for teaching reform, research into technical pedagogy, and professional development?

Money where your mouth is

The Department for Education should allocate funding for workforce development and practice-based research, and this should come in the specific form of scale-up funding for teaching of technical education, as you might see within the tech start-up community and with government backed organisations such as Tech Nation.

Institutions should bid for the funding, perhaps even in partnership with employers. It should reach across FE and HE, and the relevant bodies in each. As with scale-up funding within the tech community, it is very much for the organisation itself – educational start-ups, micro-providers, SMEs – to decide where to invest, what to focus on, and how to expand.

Scaling up practice is important. HTQs are a national brand and have a national approvals process acting as a threshold for existing qualifications – permissive up to a point. But this should be supported and balanced with specialist teachers who have their professional practice and culture rooted in a distinct form of technical education and industry, not least because over time there is the ambition for many more bespoke and niche qualifications to pass the threshold of HTQs. Teaching must reflect this. And it must be able to scale up quickly too.

Pedagogy shouldn’t be considered “national” in the same way a qualification can be “national” to protect standards or ensure consistency. As a process it remains the same and constant only to the extent that it is always iterative and reflective in nature, and should largely be left in the hands of those who iterate and reflect. Specialism should be embedded then built upon, at what is often an unseen intersection of education and industry.

Cross-sector collaboration

The Institute of Apprenticeships & Technical Education already has the employer networks through which to provide a form of “permissive oversight and allocation” of the fund, and should work with the Office for Students (OfS) to do this given the role DfE has given it (albeit these are not equivalent or parallel bodies).

In its latest business plan the OfS has outlined its role “working with the DfE to improve the approach to regulating and funding higher technical education.” It would be institutionally beneficial to the OfS to be involved in supporting new notions of what constitutes quality in technical provision if we expect to see an acceleration to a more differentiated higher education sector in the future.

An area of the fund’s focus could be existing practice such as the “mixed professional” model that has existed in the independent higher education and college sectors for decades, in which people work and teach. As with the revolving door interdependence that exists between Silicon Valley and Stanford, where researchers and teachers move in and out of industry and academia, we should provide the incentives for this model at the regional level across the UK. The fund could be designed so that bids for the funding require evidence of employer engagement or partnership.

There are also some interesting variations on the model of “enterprise zones” with incentivised co-location of employers and trainers that allows for mixed-professional models of teaching to become embedded within business development. Start-ups and nascent industries often innovate new ways of teaching and training because of the urgent need to scale. A pedagogy of work and learning.

It is time to give back to the teachers of technical education that have kept this type of provision alive for decades, and provide targeted support for that practice to scale-up in line with HTQs.

This would be politically expedient for the government, and socially just for an awful lot of people who never study degrees and need specialist teachers to study something else – teachers who can make sure the “something else” has its own distinct value.

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