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'The Post-16 Skills Plan may fall short of a coherent vision for education'

Even if T levels are implemented successfully, they will not solve all of our educational problems, argues the Education Policy Institute's Gerard Dominguez-Reig

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Even if T levels are implemented successfully, they will not solve all of our educational problems, argues the Education Policy Institute's Gerard Dominguez-Reig

The Education Policy Institute and Pearson have today published a major new report, Educating for our Economic Future, which explores what the government can do to support the development of the skills necessary for young people to thrive in an increasingly uncertain economic climate. The report presents key evidence and offers recommendations from an independent advisory group on skills, chaired by Professor Sir Roy Anderson, whose members are drawn from the worlds of employment, industry and education. The study is the follow-up to the group’s 2014 report Making Education Work.

Economic challenges: navigating the unknown

The current productivity crisis presents the UK with, arguably, one of its greatest ever economic challenges: output per hour is 16 per cent lower than the average of the rest of the G7 and real wages show little sign of recovering following the great recession. The decision of the UK to leave the EU will most likely have effects on trade and the availability of foreign workers, which may exacerbate economic pressures. However, the country already faced huge challenges dealing with an ageing population, reducing the extent of low-paid work and making better use of new technology.

All of those challenges could be better met by improving the level of a wide range of skills in our young people, but also by ensuring that their education pathways give them the right specific knowledge for them to prosper in tomorrow’s labour market. It appears that labour market will be more dynamic than ever, so it will also be important to make it easier for people to adapt their careers, acquire new knowledge when necessary and engage constructively in a changing society.

Broadening and connecting pathways

The Post-16 Skills Plan is arguably the most significant education policy change since Making Education Work was published, and responds to some of the challenges highlighted in that report. The introduction of the 15 new technical routes, delivered though T levels or apprenticeships, could make young people’s pathways to work much clearer, and the £500 million per year boost to funding announced earlier this year to support teaching will go some way to addressing long-standing funding caps that have hindered technical education.

The report says that there are some good opportunities here: to provide a logical route to the higher levels of technical training that are uniquely lacking in England’s system, and to better contextualise the teaching of English, mathematics and digital skills where necessary. The recent cross-party consensus around the benefits of apprenticeships, and their potential role in these pathways, is also welcome and supported by evidence on the experience of other countries and the labour market outcomes for our apprentices in the past.

However, design of the new system and the regulation of employer-led apprenticeships need to recognise the large group of young people interested in particular industries but not ready to commit to a single job or rule out a degree in higher education – who want to learn for a career rather than a specific job. With an unusually narrow academic education at 16 to 19 via our A-level pathway, a risk is that young people are faced with two overly narrow options at 16 without having had the careers education required for them to understand what the implications are and whether they will gain the wider knowledge they might need later.

Young people are staying in education for longer than ever before, but the proportion of low achievers at GCSE has not reduced swiftly. New technical routes will only have prestige if they represent a challenge, including to young people who might otherwise have taken A levels. That means it is vital that disengaged learners are offered something better which addresses literacy and numeracy, and which motivates them to stick with a pathway to work that may be longer than that of their peers. The proposed transition year at age 16 should be designed as part of a longer journey for learners who have disengaged from education but, more than in previous decades, find fewer appealing alternatives in work. Combined with the need to increase the numbers studying for higher levels of mathematics post-16 – thankfully recognised by recent governments – this represents a big call on an increasingly limited supply of teachers.

Teaching the right things

As well as rationalising the education landscape, the report assesses whether our education system is conveying the full range of knowledge needed for the future. Many businesses report poor levels of digital skills in their workforce and the UK performs below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average in adults’ financial literacy. The school curriculum now includes both coding and financial concepts – both sensible developments – but many teachers lack the confidence to teach these things specifically. The development of teaching in these areas needs to be monitored. Ensuring that young people (and their teachers) fully understand the student finance system they are increasingly faced with would be a practical step towards fully embedding some of the general concepts. However, it is unlikely that we will radically improve our young people’s financial skills without better developing their mathematical knowledge.

Non-cognitive and employability skills are associated with "21st-century skills", as they are expected to be increasingly demanded by individual employers, and increasingly needed to cope with more unstable careers. Whilst the report also makes the case for better developing such skills, it urges caution in attempting to do so through their teaching in general contexts in schools in the absence of strong evidence of how to do so. Ensuring young people receive a broad curriculum, without undue focus on exam performance, and with ample opportunities for extra-curricular activities, should be the priority. These experiences, combined with a proper strategy for careers education, should better prepare people to take proactive steps later to develop their careers in the face of economic headwinds, and make up the current shortfalls in adult training we face.

Are we moving in the right direction?

The report argues that many pieces of the jigsaw could be coming together under the government’s current plans, but even a successfully-implemented Post-16 Skills Plan may still fall short of a coherent vision for education. The government’s promised review of tertiary education needs to combine with other areas undergoing reform, including lifelong learning, and ensure that all young people are better prepared for an uncertain future. The approach to education at all levels needs to reflect a wider range of interests in society, and recognise that giving people fruitful careers and productive lives through high-quality training is more important than meeting arbitrary targets for particular forms of learning.

Gerard Domínguez-Reig is senior researcher for post-16 and skills and the Education Policy Institute

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