Let’s banish the 6 myths that put dogma ahead of data

The new government would do well to steer clear of a series of false assumptions now established as ‘fact’
9th June 2017, 12:00am
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Let’s banish the 6 myths that put dogma ahead of data


In the last few frenzied weeks of election campaigning, politicians from all parties were accused of playing fast and loose with the facts. In such a charged environment, it is easy for a myth to develop a life of its own and end up being unquestioningly accepted as fact. Many would argue that this has long been the case with FE policy.

Last year saw the publication of the Post-16 Skills Plan, outlining significant reforms to technical qualifications. More recently, the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 has come into law. And, of course, the system for funding apprenticeships has undergone a complete overhaul.

Underpinning all of these changes have been a number of myths that have crept, almost unnoticed, into being widely accepted as fact.

Having conducted major research, which drew together data from three government departments for the first time to compare qualifications gained with subsequent earnings and benefits claimed, my view is that these “facts” are no such thing.

If our next government is to ensure policy-making is grounded in data rather than dogma, here are six myths that it would be well advised to steer clear of.

1. ‘Technical education has failed students’

Survey-based academic studies have suggested a large number of vocational qualifications were providing little or no return.

This evidence underpinned suggestions in the 2011 Wolf Report that some 350,000 16- to 19-year-olds get “little to no benefit” from the post-16 education system. This has become an important driver of subsequent technical education rationalisations.

However, since then, I have been involved in a series of investigations using matched administrative data that challenges the survey-based findings. These data studies, commissioned by the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) - now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) - shed new light on the value of technical education in England, uncovering much more favourable estimates of returns to learning.

2. ‘Technical education is not an effective pathway to social mobility’

Many individuals who enter FE have left compulsory schooling with few qualifications and are predominantly from poorer backgrounds. The prevailing consensus in Westminster has been that these learners were most likely to end up on courses identified in studies as providing poor wage returns.

Admin-data findings present a strong challenge to previous conceptions of low quality. Survey-based studies were unable to fully capture the extent of disadvantage among FE learners, driving estimates of poor returns.

Technical education takes the most disadvantaged on the longest educational journeys because they have “low” starting points. This significantly boosts productivity and acts as an important pathway to social mobility.

3. ‘Employers are unhappy with the current system’

A key recommendation of the Richard Review of apprenticeships in 2012 was the desire to put “employers in the driving seat” of a new system of apprenticeship standards, replacing frameworks.

Despite an implicit recognition from the Sainsbury panel that there are potential downsides from an “employer-as-driver” model, the sentiment voiced by Doug Richard - that many employers felt “apprenticeships were not consistently delivering high-quality outcomes” - seems still to be driving policy.

One would expect strong empirical support for such a widely held sentiment. But the 2015 BIS apprenticeships-evaluation employer survey results suggest that 87 per cent of employers were satisfied with their main level and framework; 88 per cent with the quality of assessment; and 86 per cent with the quality of training. Some employers may be dissatisfied with the apprenticeship system, but the suggestion that employers as a whole are unhappy is not supported by the evidence.

4. ‘Apprenticeships are the answer to problems of social mobility’

The fact that FE caters to a high proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds has been used as an argument that apprenticeships are a route to social mobility.

However, apprenticeship learners are from more advantaged backgrounds than the average for FE as a whole. Furthermore, as Baroness Wolf has suggested, getting an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce is akin to getting into Oxbridge. If this is the case, we can expect more prestigious apprenticeship places to be filled by those from more affluent backgrounds.

If employers are given a primary role in assessment and accreditation, we will have a system that relies predominantly on the brand of the enterprise. Apprenticeships accredited at Rolls Royce will be a “Rolls Royce apprenticeship”; those from the garage around the corner will be a “garage-around-the-corner apprenticeship”, even when the quality of learning is equivalent. Without some external validation of the equivalence between qualifications gained with very different types of employer, we risk further widening social divisions.

5. ‘Awarding organisations are failing’

The implication behind many of the reports and policies I have previously outlined is that awarding bodies are inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of FE providers and employers. Their response to market incentives is responsible for the proliferation of poor-quality technical qualifications that do not meet the needs of employers.

That charge ignores the fact that approximately two-thirds of awarding bodies are professional bodies. Secondly, there are clearly too many technical qualifications, and awarding bodies have played a role in this.

However, they have been operating in a system of technical education experiencing near-constant revolution. Part of the problem must lie at the door of successive governments that have not ensured stability.

There is an assumption that as long as employers design technical education, it will be relevant, high-value and therefore aligned with the interests of learners. This assumption, however, risks further proliferation of qualifications and does not of itself ensure widely comparable qualifications that are necessarily of value to learners.

6. ‘All this change will create stability’

The Technical and Further Education Bill will be the 29th act tackling issues of technical education in the UK since 1981. Rather than yet another policy overhaul, a full review and re-engagement with the evidence base would seem more appropriate. There are exciting new administrative data resources that would provide unprecedented insights into the English education system and its interaction with the labour market.

We risk running blindly ahead with a raft of changes - just as the evidence that could inform them is about to catch up.

Professor Peter Urwin is director of the Centre for Employment Research at the University of Westminster. This is an edited version of an article commissioned by the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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