The widening skills gap and lack of high-quality vocational training have been talked about for years, and each incoming government has made attempts to address these issues in different ways. From the constant shifting of departmental responsibility to neverending reforms, further education has been in a regular state of flux and at the receiving end of many funding cuts.
However, Wednesday's Budget announcement of a dramatic overhaul to our education system is generally being welcomed by advocates of vocational training. With a promised £500 million investment and consolidation of over 13,000 qualifications into 15 clear, career-focused pathways, what isn’t there to like?
Indeed, any effort undertaken to raise the esteem of technical education should be encouraged, as should the pledge of significant additional funding. However, creating a system which truly values vocational qualifications in the same way it values academic qualifications is not going to happen automatically or, indeed, overnight.
'Every day we have a success story'
As a principal of a large London college, offering a huge range of qualification across many curriculum areas, I see at first-hand the many benefits that can come from vocational training. Watching young people find their interest and niche, perhaps after a rather unfulfilling few years at school, is intensely rewarding and there are wonderful success stories to be heard on a daily basis.
Yet despite this good work, vocational routes continue to be perceived as routes for the "less able". Next to their academic counterparts, they are still seen as the poor relation by many people – including teachers, parents and even the young people themselves.
The introduction of T levels alone will not change this perception. We will not instantly have a reformed system that people immediately understand and "believe in".
There simply is no silver bullet for raising parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications – but there are a number of things that need to happen if we are to make any serious headway here.
'Buy-in from employers is key'
To start with, absolute buy-in from employers and universities is unequivocally key. Qualifications are a young person’s passport to the next step in their career and the value of these qualifications will largely be determined by an employer or higher education institution. Consequently, any new qualification framework has to be fully understood by the employer/university and they must have full confidence in it. For this to happen we need to ensure that industry is involved in the development and creation of any new system.
This employer-led approach to curriculum development is nothing new. Indeed, my college has set up a number of employer advisory boards across 11 industry sectors – ensuring that all our study programmes meet the needs of business, giving us confidence that all our students will be employable.
If employers are helping to design the vocational pathways, young people and their parents will be filled with far more confidence as to the value of the qualification they are working towards. Teachers in schools are also often wary about suggesting alternative routes at age 16. Thanks to Lord Baker, colleges and apprenticeship providers can now demand to be "let in" to schools to talk about the other progression options available – and this is most certainly a welcome move.
But what would be better is to have teachers who have enough confidence in an overhauled system to genuinely recommend and suggest the technical route as a 100 per cent viable alternative to traditional A levels.
In order to achieve the "ladder of opportunity" talked about by apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon and the desire of universities minister Jo Johnson for increased social mobility via higher education, any new reforms must be joined up neatly with apprenticeships.
Care must also be taken to stop any new qualifications looking and feeling like old style GNVQs (which to be frank, were a flop), just as we have to stop the proposed institutes of technology looking like the old centres of vocational excellence (COVES).
Perhaps I have become too cynical but I do wonder about the product life-cycle of these new ideas. The rising start…moving to the cash cow…then a question mark…ending with a dead dog. We have certainly seen this happen many times before.
Yet growth share models show that something can gain a new life-cycle when it joins a new market. The question here is – is it a new market? Perhaps it is, particularly with the new Baker clause ensuring that the market place will be opened up and young people given more options, advice and progression pathways.
Wednesday’s news has been well received. There is a real desire within the FE sector and, indeed, throughout industry for these reforms to succeed. If we can continue to get employers, parents and teachers on board then maybe, just maybe, we will see the start of a positive new dawn for vocational education and for it to start getting the respect it deserves.
Sam Parrett is principal and CEO of London South-East Colleges