The industrial strategy Green Paper released by government was notable for many things, not least the focus on skills and technical education. The term “technical education”, as distinct from Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths), appears more than 30 times over 10 pages. The attention given to technical education and skills development has been widely welcomed in further education, not least because of the relative neglect that it has suffered over decades compared with academic education in terms of funding and in sustained, consistent policy development.
But how does “technical education” differ from academic education? Is it simply a rebadging of vocational education, the only mention of which in the Green Paper is associated with “low-level” provision?
Much of the content within the Green Paper has been drawn from the report on technical education by the panel led by Lord Sainsbury last year. When Lord Sainsbury was asked to define what he meant by technical education at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference last year, his unconvincing response seemed to be “if you see it, you’ll know it”.
Unless we think about distinctions, the current focus on technical education might just be a rebranding exercise
In so far as he gave a more substantive reply it was around the body of knowledge that was being studied, and this is consistent with the panel report. But even in that, there is little clear reasoning for the inclusion of some occupations in technical routes while others are not.
Does this lack of precision and definition matter? If the attention being given to technical education is to be sustained and true parity of esteem with academic studies established, I think it does. For too long, vocational education sought false equivalence with academic education, rather than its own distinctive rigour and character.
This has led to comparisons between the two against academic benchmarks and modes of assessment, with the inevitable consequence that vocational is seen as low-value.
In educating a technician, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things, and immediate direct consequences, meaning that a more didactic approach to teaching is often required. A trial-and-error approach to learning how to service an aircraft is probably not going to reassure the pilot. In most cases, practice will precede theory in learning, with theory being used to interpret and build upon experience – an inversion of most academic learning. Cutting-edge practice at the highest levels of technical education is as important, or more important, than cutting-edge knowledge.
All these characteristics require modes of teaching, assessment and curriculum development distinct from academic study. This does not mean that there are not exacting standards, but these are not skills that will be reflected only in a written exam.
In making the distinctions between technical and academic education, I have probably overstated the case, but unless we begin to think more deeply about such distinctions, the current concentration on technical education might prove to be just another rebranding exercise. In the process, we will have lost a oncein-a-generation chance to create an English dual system to rival that of many of our continental neighbours.
Martin Doel is the Further Education Trust for Leadership professor of leadership in FE and skills at the UCL Institute of Education, and a former chief executive of the Association of Colleges