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Radical changes to technical and vocational qualifications for post-16 learners: an evaluation of th

Lord Sainsbury’s ‘Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education’ and the Government’s response to it in the ‘Post 16 Skills Plan’ lays out a radical plan to reform the post-16 technical and vocational qualification system in England which on first viewing is to be welcomed.

It recognises that for a high productivity economy there needs to be more investment in the training of technical staff at levels 3 and above, and that a well understood national system of qualifications that works well in the labour market is essential. For the system to work well, industry experts must lay down the knowledge, skills and behaviours and methods of assessment for each qualification but the Government must design the overall system. The technical education system must provide young people with clear educational routes that lead to employment in specific occupations, and it must be flexible enough to enable individuals to move between different routes whilst recognising that for some young people not ready to access the technical education route a transition period tailored to their prior attainment and aspirations is needed. But it also highlights the importance of having stable institutions with an appropriate infrastructure to deliver technical education, including comprehensive careers guidance, and that adequate funding must be available to incentivise individuals and employers to participate in technical education.

The plan clearly differentiates between academic education and technical education routes for young people but with short, bridging provisions to enable individuals to move between them in either direction, and also to support adults returning to study. Technical education for young people will consist of two modes of learning, employment based, typically an apprenticeship, and college (provider) based, again with bridging provisions between them for flexibility. A single common framework of standards will be developed to cover both employment based and college (provider) based provision. The standard will consist of the knowledge, skills and behaviour to perform successfully in specific occupations. Fifteen routes at levels 2 to 5 are listed in occupations that require significant technical knowledge and skills, e.g. business and administrative, engineering and manufacturing, construction, health and science. Some of the routes listed will be primarily delivered through the apprenticeship route, e.g. social care, transport and logistics. Each route will consist of ‘common core’ which includes English, maths and digital skills as well as a “specialisation towards a skilled occupation or set of occupations.” Every 16-18 year old on the technical route in a college (provider) will also be entitled to a ‘high quality’ work placement (which could be funded by an increase in the base rate on successful completion). Colleges (providers) would be able to deliver traineeships for up to a year (double the current six month maximum) as part of a ‘transition year’ for 16 to 18-year-olds not ready to access one of the 15 routes ( or older if their education has been delayed). More controversially any technical qualification would only be offered by a single awarding organisation or consortium licensed to do so after a competitive process.

To ensure that the reforms of technical education are planned and managed effectively, it is proposed that the Institute for Apprenticeships be given this role from April 2017 and that its remit is extended to encompass all technical education at levels 2 to 5. This will require substantial resourcing especially for the creation of the new standards and the expert panels. The Institute would also have to maintain the register of approved awarding bodies, particularly at levels 4 and 5. So a key question here is how will these resources be financed?

These changes could bring some significant benefits to young people and adults choosing the technical route. A coherent common framework of standards that gives equal value to whatever route a young person takes would improve access to and performance of the labour market. Offering short flexible bridging provision between the routes would also allow individuals chances to change direction if necessary without losing what they have achieved so far. Access to HE Diplomas would also provide opportunities for bridging courses to academic education for adults.

The current system consists of too many qualifications and options, often of low value, for individuals to make sense of and for careers guidance to work effectively. The large number of awarding organisations often offering similar qualifications adds to the confusion. So rationalising the number of awarding organisations would facilitate choice, increase consistency and save resources. Employers are not engaged enough in designing the qualifications that meet their needs so their involvement in the expert panels would increase the currency and value of the new qualifications. Additionally, adopting the Gatsby benchmarks as a basis of a common national approach for careers education and guidance would enhance provision in schools and colleges.

Ensuring proper funding for technical education by benchmarking against levels of funding in other successful economies might see some increase in investment but note the Government’s response “we accept and will implement all of the Sainsbury panel’s proposals, unequivocally where that it is possible within current budget constraints.”

On the less positive side there are some concerns which need to be addressed before the reforms can be implemented successfully. How can we ensure parity between the academic and technical education routes? Will the bridging provision will be able to do this? There are concerns about how well academic routes prepare individual learners for the world of work, e.g. the incidence of graduate unemployment or underemployment. A one year transition may not be long enough for some young people, and there is little reference to how provision below level 2 would articulate with these new qualifications, which for many individuals is their reality. Although much is said about initial technical and professional education, there is less detail about continuing technical education, particularly for adults, although bridging provision may provide some solutions here.

Furthermore, the choice of only 15 routes implies that the occupations that do not require specific technical knowledge and skills fall outside of the scope of technical education.

Some routes are significantly not included, e.g. sport and recreation. Also the inference is that only fifteen apprenticeship standards which mirror the fifteen technical education routes will be available for 16-18 year olds. What does this mean for the new standards replacing frameworks? Will these only be available to adult apprentices?

Throughout the review there seems to be an emphasis on college based provision. This ignores the significant contribution that independent training providers and local authorities can make to technical education, and not just to the employment route.

Overall, there is much to commend in the review and the Government’s response to it, but we have been here before with qualification reforms, e.g. General National Vocational Qualifications in the 1990s and more recently the 14-19 Diploma. Let’s hope that before plans are finalised and energies and resources expended, all stakeholders carefully consider the details of the proposed reforms and take account of the concerns raised here. Our future learners deserve the very best system that works for all of them.

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