'We finally have the prospect of a dual skills system that fits our needs'

8th July 2016 at 10:17
Martin Doel AoC skills plan Sainsbury review
The government's proposed overhaul of post-16 education could finally lead to recognition of the 'absolutely critical importance of technical education', according to the Association of Colleges' chief executive

The government’s Post-16 Skills Plan, which follows the recommendations of the panel led by Lord Sainsbury, is ambitious, but it contains much to excite our sector. In the coming years, through the introduction of the common framework of 15 routes, we will see technical and professional education raised to parity with academic study, based not on false equivalence but on its distinctiveness.

Read our full explanation of what the changes will mean here.

Recognising this distinctiveness is what makes possible the creation of a world class technical and professional education system. The extension of the role of the Institute of Apprenticeships to encompass the college-based routes delivering technical education will help to regulate the quality of provision. Sir Frank McCloughlin’s report rightly identified that technical education requires expert teaching staff, industry-standard facilities and the links with employers, things that colleges are uniquely well placed to supply and which is within their DNA.

As might be expected, there are areas where greater detail is required, for instance the apparent under-representation of the creative arts and sport in the key occupations within the 15 routes; these are key areas of growth in the economy and need significant technical knowledge and skills. Questions about these details will need to be addressed in the implementation phase of the reforms, which is sensibly long. Similarly sensible is the intention to build upon the series of reports that we have seen on technical education over the past six years – Richards, Wolf, Whitehead et al and to seek consensus that would confer longevity, rather than yet another short-lived programme.

One of the biggest changes brought about by the 15 routes is that it will assist young people in navigating the options available to young people post-16. The task of careers advisers is made more complex by the myriad of competing qualifications in the market. The routes will be easier to explain and prevent the potential for young people to specialise too soon. The profusion of Trailblazer standards could be just as confusing and limiting, making the intention to use the routes to review overlaps and duplications in apprenticeship standards a definite plus.

'The routes offers the prospect of a dual system that fits our needs'

The panel’s report also makes provision for work placements for all students following a technical route. These placements are intended to differ from generic work experience by being an integral element in a student’s study through projects undertaken in the workplace for instance. This and other elements in the skills plan will, however, require support from employers and would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Though guarded in how it is expressed, the government’s acceptance that there is a need to review the level of funding for work placements and college-based technical education more generally is welcome and realistic if we truly aspire to deliver a world class system.

The deeply embedded and preconceived ideas about technical and professional education, and the bias toward academic learning, won’t disappear overnight but in creating these routes, the government is joining the mainstream amongst our OECD competitors in recognising the absolutely critical importance of technical education.  We are often told we need a dual system that emulates Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The routes offers the prospect of a dual system that fits our needs.

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