We need more choice for learners, not less

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
Qualifications should be broad in scope and offer deep understanding, but sadly we seem to be moving in the opposite direction by removing choice

In politics, things can change very quickly. In the world of skills and technical education, though, we’re stuck in a cycle, without ever learning from past failures or giving new policies the chance to create change.

In October, the government published the Technical and Further Education Bill, which sets out the reforms to post-16 technical education outlined in the Skills Plan. It takes forward provisions that extend the Institute for Apprenticeships’ remit to cover classroom-based technical education.

The Sainsbury review first suggested that each route should be tendered out to a single awarding body or a consortium; the government now intends to go further than this. Tucked away in the small print are proposals that would result in the de facto nationalisation of technical education in England.

Provision in the bill allows the institute to approve technical education qualifications in relation to one or more occupations for which there is a published standard. This approval process will include the transfer of copyright for relevant course documents to the institute. It appears that the intention is to award fixed-term licenses to operate these qualifications via open tender.

The range of options available to students will inevitably reduce

Monopolies seldom have customers’ best interests at heart. A timely report by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren for the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education sets out the arguments on the place of choice and competition in qualifications markets; it makes the case that a monopoly or franchising outcome would more likely increase costs, while decreasing innovation and raising the chance of system failure.

The Sainsbury review proposed that the new Institute for Apprenticeships should be responsible for a framework of 15 technical education routes, which would provide access to skilled occupations. The institute will determine which qualifications should be required on these routes by establishing expert review panels, giving employers a stronger role in setting standards, and specifying the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for different occupations.

There’s a recognition, then, that different sectors will have different pathways into work requiring different qualifications and methods of assessment. But this is a huge job for a body that does not yet even exist, and one that it’s unlikely to be able to perform efficiently. Although the inclusion of higher-level technical provision is to be welcomed, on this model, access to and retention of the right level of expertise will be a challenge. Of course, employers’ interests aren’t the only ones to account for: learners want curriculum and assessment options that will open up pathways to the next stages of their careers – be that in employment or further study.

The range of options available to students once these routes have been established will inevitably reduce. Thereafter, over the medium to long term, it is content standards (ie, relevance and utility) that are most likely to suffer with user choice having been removed from the qualifications framework.

Successive reforms have led to a narrowing of vocational education, to the detriment of technical knowledge and young people’s broader education. To be fit for the future, new qualifications will need to recover that breadth, while allowing for the attainment of deeper levels of understanding and the opportunity to develop progressively higher skills – and do so flexibly. Sadly, we do not appear to be heading in that direction.

Geoffrey Holden is senior policy adviser at City & Guilds and a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education

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