As a sector, further education devotes a considerable amount of time and thought to the question of how we can best ensure that we are equipping learners with the knowledge and skills they will need in rapidly evolving workplaces.
Why wouldn’t we? We recognise the rapid pace of technological change, we understand the imperative for our learners to be employable, and we do our utmost to ensure that our part of the education system responds to those factors by providing a learning experience that equips individuals with work-relevant skills.
To achieve that aim, we must ensure that FE is seamlessly interwoven with the world of work. This partnership must be symbiotic, with the co-production and co-delivery of the curriculum driving its evolution to meet current and future needs. It also requires a rapid reaccreditation cycle to maximise the currency of qualifications.
T levels can deliver up-to-date workplace skills
That sounds good in theory, of course, but it is extremely difficult to achieve in practice. No country does it excellently, and the administrative, logistical and cultural challenges of doing it in the UK have proven to be considerable, although the early signs from T levels are encouraging.
More by David Russell: The 15 questions the FE White Paper must answer
Teacher pay: AoC recommends 1% pay rise – or £250
Even more fundamentally, though, this approach can never reach its destination and is constantly running to catch up. Even if it works excellently, the progress of technological change means that by the time a curriculum is embedded and qualifications are accredited and staff are trained to teach them, they are in need of updating. This is not just an issue in sectors that see the most rapid scientific and technological change; it can affect sectors like education and care, too.
The difficulty of establishing the kind of relationship required, and maintaining the pace required of it when we can, suggest an alternative answer. What if education shouldn’t attempt to keep up with technological change?
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit one of BAE Systems’ factories where it makes the tail wings for the F-35 stealth fighter. It had established its own academy on site to train workers, and we were invited to tour it.
Many of the party were absolutely amazed at what greeted us when we walked through from the factory floor to the academy; a long line of wooden work benches, with lathes, vices and hand tools. The contrast with the scenes in the factory itself – where we had seen super-advanced industry 4.0 robots and artificial intelligence in operation – could hardly have been greater.
The principal explained that in order to manipulate the machines to a sophisticated level, the team needed to understand the fundamentals of what the high-tech machinery did. And the best way to underpin that was for them to experience for themselves, in the most stripped-down way, how materials respond to various pressures and processes and learn deeply the knowledge and skills of engineering. BAE had hit an educational sweet spot: continual retraining on the latest processes and protocols on the factory floor, underpinned by fundamental theoretical and practical understanding of what it was that the machinery did.
Longevity in learning
I think there is a very profound point here about how we equip young people and adults for the workplaces of the future. Cutting-edge technology moves on at pace, but it is based on the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and maths, which do not.
The most up-to-date parts of the curriculum have the shortest shelf-life. Longevity in learning is achieved by balancing core knowledge, so-called “soft skills” and route-specific specialisation. This is one of the many things I think the new T levels are getting right.
That blend equips learners to create, rather than respond to, the future.
David Russell is the chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation