There is a very difficult phrase that is heard often in further education: “the Cinderella sector”. There are others, but this nicely captures that sense that many in FE have of being the slightly drab and neglected relative, always waiting for a fairy godmother and a ball to go to.
It is a turn of phrase I have always taken issue with, but there has been reality in the challenges faced by providers, and also in the ever-changing nature of the education provision they need to deliver for their learners.
It is clearer now than ever that things are changing. Not wishing to cast the chancellor of the exchequer or the prime minister as a fairy godmother, it seems best to abandon the Cinderella analogy.
But from the very top of government (and for more than one administration) there is a clarity of purpose in wishing to reform and improve vocational/technical education. While both reform and improve imply change, this is no bad thing. We faced productivity and skills gaps as a nation before the pandemic, and now have the additional challenges of potentially spiralling unemployment among the young and an economy in recovery for several years. In this context, with so many reasons to tighten spending even further, any rhetoric from the government that backs FE is welcome.
T levels are the first step
Over successive decades as a nation, we have not always made the most of how we train young people in technical disciplines. We have an enormous gap where other similar economies have provision at levels 4 and 5 for example, and much of what we teach has become progressively distant from the needs of industries and employers. To close these gaps, we probably do need reform, do need to support the sector through further change, and probably should be looking to find new ways of training young people and retraining adults in new skills.
With that in mind, the T-level agenda is only the first step in a wider evolution of the FE landscape. The higher technical qualification review is travelling in the same direction, and there may be other changes to come, perhaps in the forthcoming White Paper.
What we should all take heart from is that technical education is more important to the nation than it has been for some time. Helping people to train for employment, develop advanced skills and knowledge – these are things FE has done for over a century, but it has been a long time since it felt like anyone out there had really noticed. Under those circumstances, I would say: bring on the next reform.
Being in the spotlight is a mixed blessing. It brings scrutiny as well as acclaim, and we need to be mindful as a sector in the coming years of what it is we are trying to achieve, and how we will get there. Teaching requirements on the T level are markedly different from those of previous qualifications – they are assessed differently and need strong employer partnerships to be a success.
Embracing the need to learn
If we see this as a direction of travel, it means that teaching staff and leadership teams will have a range of skills that need support. Where previous FE delivery might have been to extremely high standards, it is the breadth and depth, as well as the practical considerations of the T level, that will make the future challenging for us to deliver.
National programmes of support such as the ETF’s T level professional development offer will help, but only if they are allied to a genuine wish to change and grow in the sector. We have a proud history of delivering the highest quality of technical /vocational teaching to the country and bringing staff into the sector from industry to ensure up-to-date practice and skills.
In the coming years, we will want to be certain we also have an in-depth theoretical understanding of these industries alongside those skills and we will need leaders to step forward who are confident they can create conditions for successful change in technical education.
To do this, we all need to embrace the need to learn – learn about our subject, our industry, effective teaching and leadership. It isn’t always easy and change can be uncomfortable when it also challenges our sense of expertise, but in the longer term, we need to remember that the industries we serve across the country are also changing, and will continue to do so. If we are ever guilty of sitting back and believing we know enough, the employers we work with can be forgiven for moving forward without us, not for the first time.
We are at a turning point – there is an opportunity for teaching in technical disciplines to help transform our economy, and also change the aspirations of many young people. It is no longer a total shock to hear senior politicians talking about there being options instead of university for you to be a success and we should capitalise on that – by being ready to teach to the highest standards, inspire the next generation, and deliver a genuinely transformative educational experience.
Technical education is more important than ever before, and we all need to be up to the task.
Paul Kessell-Holland is the national head of T-level design and higher-level education at the Education and Training Foundation.
This article is part of The ETF Thinks… campaign, which aims to stimulate thinking in the FE sector and share ideas nationally