Be warned: UTCs could lead to elitism

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Good skills training is vital but we must guard against a return to tripartism, says Patrick Roach

In this country we exist in a perpetual state of hand-wringing about the lack of functional and employability skills demonstrated by our young people. A handful of business leaders are engaged in what seems to be a daily ritual of complaining about the skills and aptitudes not only of school-leavers but also of graduates applying for work. Too often the criticism levelled at school- and college-leavers seems to be based on the desire to deflect attention away from what too many employers are failing to do - namely, their lack of investment in workforce skills, training and lifelong learning.

A recent report by the CBI and the publisher Pearson on education and skills development by employers found that a significant number have reduced the amount of money they are investing in workforce training and development, a problem that has been exacerbated by the downturn in the UK economy. This is incredibly short-sighted.

Meeting the challenge of developing the skills that employers and the economy need now and in the future requires the government and employers to recognise the importance of sustained investment in academic and vocational education. The NASUWT teaching union has long argued for employers to take their responsibilities for developing skills seriously and to put their money where their mouths are by investing in high-quality education, training and professional development.

Securing economic recovery is dependent on having a well-prepared workforce that continues to develop the knowledge and skills our country needs to compete successfully on the global stage. Successive governments have made bold claims of getting to grips with this issue by taking steps to raise the esteem of vocational education and provide high-quality practical learning that will be as valued as A levels and honours degrees.

Labour introduced a system of diplomas that aimed to offer young people the opportunity to combine specialised vocational and academic learning in a range of disciplines. Yet the first students had barely got to grips with these courses before the coalition came to power and binned them.

In their place now stand university technical colleges (UTCs). The concept underpinning UTCs - providing young people with high-level vocational education supported by employers and higher education institutions - contains the seeds of a promising idea. But the UTC experience is designed to be available only to some 14- to 19-year-olds. If we are to avoid a return to the era of tripartism, we should be pressing for a cast-iron entitlement for all young people to vocational education that is not only high quality but also has parity of esteem with so-called academic programmes of study.

This is a concern that ministers need to address: how to ensure that all vocational education available to young people has currency, regardless of the type of institution attended. We must be careful to ensure that UTCs do not result in a new "gold standard" vocational system available only to a minority of young people. These institutions must also guard against early specialisation.

It is interesting that UTCs are being created at a time when the government appears ambivalent about the worth of vocational education. Last year, the government removed more than 3,000 vocational qualifications from the school performance tables. In their place has come the proposal for the English Baccalaureate Certificate, focusing on a narrow core of subjects and squeezing out many academic and vocational subjects. Is this what employers want? We have yet to see how the employers behind UTCs will respond, although Lord Baker, the originator of the UTC programme, has voiced concerns about the direction of travel of the government's most recent curriculum and qualifications reform proposals.

According to the 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, the top-performing nations in education emphasise the importance of high-level vocational learning for students as a priority for the 21st-century curriculum and for a globally competitive economy. Given that the UK was one of the high-performing countries at that summit, we would do well to heed this call.

Indeed, education secretary Michael Gove would do well to listen carefully to the views of employers, trade unions and others who are expressing genuine concerns about the potential impact of his reforms, which risk not only a return to an elitist and divisive curriculum but also have the potential to limit the prospects of tomorrow's school- and college-leavers and further damage the country's longer-term economic fortunes.

Dr Patrick Roach is deputy general secretary of the NASUWT.

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