'FE must have a voice in the industrial strategy consultation'

If the government's industrial strategy aims to close the skills gap, FE must be involved in its development, Sally Dicketts writes

Sally Dicketts

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As a group of schools, colleges and training providers specialising in the delivery of technical education, we have a keen interest in the government’s industrial strategy.

The strategy, out for consultation until 17 April, seeks to improve living standards and economic growth by driving productivity across the whole country.

I am particularly struck by the green paper’s stated commitment to closing the gap between the “best performing companies, industries, places and people and the least productive”.

This will largely be tackled by investing in science, research and innovation, to the tune of £4.76 billion by 2021. Research and innovation is certainly important to maintaining our competitive edge as a nation. But to truly address the lack of social mobility, we must increase technical skills, as well as develop the behaviours, attitudes and characteristics which people need to flourish in employment and society.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

I would like to see funding made available for innovative partnerships between colleges, employers and universities. Involving colleges in the research and innovation phases will ensure that we make the most of emerging trends. Together, these partnerships can make early and effective use of findings to inform the delivery of technical curricula and benefit students and employers alike.

The paper’s section on skills does recognise that the current complexity of our technical education system is difficult for learners and employers to navigate. As such it does little to achieve parity with relatively well-understood academic alternatives. I endorse moves to simplify the network of qualifications, but would advise that we move forward with caution.

The last time we made bold statements about reducing the complex array of qualifications, and asked employers to determine what was required, the result was more qualifications, not less. At Activate Learning, we are engaging employers in curriculum design and delivery, to enhance the learning experience for our students and reduce the skills gap for employers. This is not the same as asking national employer bodies to agree the qualifications that every business needs to succeed, which makes no allowance for regional differences.

‘We must think more radically’

In a bid to encourage more young people to follow a technical route, the green paper also proposes a new Ucas-style system for applications to college and apprenticeships. This would, at first glance, offer a simpler route into a more standardised range of qualifications.

As always, however, the devil is in the detail, and I fear that it will only lead to greater disparity between academic and technical routes. The Ucas process requires a great deal of our 18-year-old university applicants, who often receive the support of teachers, parents and careers teams to draft and submit their final application. To ask the same of Year 11 pupils, whose school teachers are unlikely to have the time, nor inclination to guide them through the process, could serve to be yet another barrier to entry. If we want parity, then we shouldn’t be developing two-tier systems that make it simpler for young people to move into an A-level programme over a vocational alternative.

The industrial strategy offers much in the way of opportunities for our economy and education system. I believe, however, that we need to think much more radically and be prepared to invest more heavily in skills, if it is to be the panacea to industrial success.

Sally Dicketts CBE is group chief executive of Activate Learning

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Sally Dicketts

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