Sainsbury offers stability in these turbulent times

15th July 2016 at 00:00

You have to feel for David Hughes. Not only is the Learning and Work Institute chief executive busy gearing up for his next job at the helm of the Association of Colleges but his preparation for the institute’s flagship IntoWork Convention this week was also repeatedly throw into disarray.

When he started writing his speech, David Cameron’s position as prime minister was rock solid. Since that fateful day on 23 June, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Theresa May have all at various points been considered as likely candidates for the country’s next leader. Thankfully for May, Andrea Leadsom’s maternal skills failed to prevent her from gifting the Conservative leadership to her opponent. But the uncertainty about who will be in what job under May and what the political turbulence will mean for a host of reforms and policy initiatives shows no sign of abating.

The only certainty is that plenty more speeches will need last-minute redrafts in the months ahead. While FE is no stranger to policy churn by any stretch of the imagination, the ongoing and imminent changes the sector faces are simply staggering.

With the reform of post-16 education resulting from the Sainsbury review (see the story opposite) now sitting on top of area reviews and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in CEOs’ in trays, many working in FE can legitimately argue that they have no idea what they will be teaching, where they will be teaching it or how it will be funded in a couple of years’ time.

But at least it must be welcomed that the Sainsbury review, and the resulting Skills Plan, finally offer the prospect of a coherent system of post-16 education, with 15 new technical routes offering straightforward progression from GCSEs to the workplace.

While aspects of several different countries’ systems of vocational education and training (VET) can be discerned in the Sainsbury review, it cannot be denied that the remit handed to the independent panel of experts behind it was shaped in no small way by skills minister Nick Boles’ oft-mentioned admiration for Norway’s skills system before his departure this week.

I was fortunate enough to visit Oslo a few weeks ago to witness this for myself (see “Nor-way to go”, pages 26-32). And, other than touring the building site for what will be the spectacular new museum housing the assorted paintings of Edvard Munch, the highlight was undoubtedly learning about the benefits brought by having a stable, clearly mapped-out structure for post-16 education that actively involves schools in delivering VET in partnership with employers.

Norway has a proud history of cultivating skilled labour and preparing its young people for the world of work. This tradition survived the country’s profound cultural shift during the second half of the 20th century – from being a poor nation lagging behind its Northern European neighbours to one flush with oil revenues and looking confidently towards the future.

The clear understanding of what an apprenticeship is, and the journey it represents, is something that we in the UK have lost in the push for quantity at the expense of quality, first through Train to Gain and then the explosion in apprenticeships in the early days of the coalition.

This target-obsessed behaviour of politicians continues with the goal of facilitating 3 million apprenticeship starts by the next general election. This short-term target will inevitably trump the desire for longer-term cohesion in our skills system.

But, for coming up with a workable (funding permitting, of course) plan to create a clear and logical structure for post-16 education, Lord Sainsbury and his fellow panel members deserve much credit. Now it’s down to the government to put this plan into practice – whoever happens to be occupying 10 Downing Street.

@stephenexley

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