The Skills Plan’s promises are the most hollow yet

FE is constantly being told what its ‘problem’ is – but none of the proposed solutions address the need for a vocational education and training system

Norman Crowther

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Failure to provide the right skills for the economy; failure to supply the right level of technical ability; not enough flexible and bespoke support for adult retraining and apprenticeships. According to report after report, that’s the problem with further education. More than 100 years of suffering the same crises – it’s like Groundhog Day, with FE waking up to the same catcalls day after day, year after year.

Why is this? I found the answer on page 6 of the Sainsbury review: we continue to misidentify “the problem”.

No sector, surely, has had more “solutions” or attempts to solve its problem. To be fair, like all previous attempts (Foster, Leitch, Hodge, even Lingfield), the report poses necessary questions about what FE should be, what it should do and why. This time, the answers are a little too obvious – which makes them oddly compelling.

The gist of the report is that FE should have a clearly delineated set of qualifications that match employer interests and design (along with educational experts, of course). They should be aspirational and rigorous. Careers advice should be impartial and ensure awareness is raised about technical education and apprenticeships. College courses in technical education should include two-year work placements, which, like work experience itself, should amount to more than box-ticking.

So far, so good. But then we get to the list of promises. National colleges, institutes of technology, the Institute for Apprenticeships, an employer-led system…I love promises. I make them all the time, but I really try to keep to them and I feel bad if I don’t. The Skills Plan is not just one of the biggest promises the FE sector has heard but the most hollow, precisely because it claims to know why others have failed. But it has failed to do what all the other solutions have also failed to do: establish a system of vocational education and training (VET).

Markets vs systems

I know, I know. There is a lot of talk about “system” in the document. But ask yourself, what is a “system”? It is a set of interconnected parts. An intelligent system will also have communication channels, feedback and change processes. At the very least, it will have intelligent design.

Let me cut to the quick: a market is not a system per se. Introducing market mechanisms to get the output you want is not a VET system. All the “market” systems have the same sort of problems around VET (think the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Of course, that’s not a problem as long as you don’t want coherent skill formation and skill utilisation. But in a time of economic uncertainty and poor productivity, a system is exactly what we need.

The German coordinated market economy goes so far as to legislate on vocational education and training, and apprenticeships have labour-market worth. In France, the state coordinates agreement via ministerial committees. The Nordic model has positioned VET as a part of the school curriculum and produced publicly intelligible VET qualifications that resonate with the public.

Our market mechanisms are not actually meant to be systematic; they are meant to improve outputs on the basis of market belief, expertise, methods. Nobody knows which colleges will fare well – the market will decide. Nobody knows which technical education qualifications will succeed – the market will decide. We don’t even know what those outputs will be – the market will decide.

It is brilliant for government because there is never anybody to blame. But that’s not an intelligently designed system. That’s not a system that can guarantee anything. It’s not fit for the fundamental purpose of educating and developing skills and abilities.

Norman Crowther is national official for post-16 education at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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Norman Crowther

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