A good general education for everybody

The Guardian (Editorial February 20th) has now joined the attack on University Technology Colleges* correctly arguing that directing ‘non-academic’ students’ onto a vocational curriculum at 14 – what it terms ‘backdoor selection’ – is wrong.

Some five years after Alison Wolf’s review had slammed many qualifications for being ‘worthless’ in the labour market, the paper likens the low status of vocational education, compared with academic learning, to the old grammar and secondary modern divide and calls for specialisation to be delayed until 16. This is now what the government intends as it seeks to rebuild what the paper  describes as a ‘beleaguered’ vocational system through its Post-16 Skills Plan.

Redrawing the line of divide at 16 through the creation of a new technical route has led to alarm bells about the dilapidated state of the further education sector and the need for a major injection of funding. Nobody would dispute this, but what can be disputed is whether we need a vocational pathway at all? Employers have never taken it seriously and have continued to select recruits on performance in academic subjects, while significant numbers of young people with vocational qualifications continue to use them as alternative routes into higher education rather than to develop employment skills. With major changes in the occupational structure, particularly the collapse of ‘middling’ and technician level employment it’s even more questionable whether these sorts of qualifications are required.

Instead, surely young people need a good general education?  Current academic qualifications do not provide this and it’s these that need to be reformed, rather than vocational courses. But the nature and basis of academic learning is rarely challenged, not least because most of those concerned with education policy and curriculum development have benefitted from the status and security that it has provided for them.  Academics and educational professionals are very good at designing and redesigning vocational courses for other people’s children but are reluctant to visit their own back yard.

 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/the-guardian-view-on-vocational-education-choice-at-14-is-not-working?CMP=share_btn_fb 

Schools that nobody really wants?

University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for 14-19 year olds, were established during Michael thGove’s period as Education Secretary but are most associated with Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the creator of the original ten subject national curriculum under Mrs Thatcher, but now a campaigner for better vocational education. Baker argued that Britain’s economic difficulties and low rates of productivity have been due to a shortage of technical skills and that it should adopt the German model of different types of schools with different types of curriculum for different types of students. This didn’t fit easily with Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach and it’s said the two had a strained relationship.

But UTCs have not been the success that Baker intended them to be, as Gove recently acknowledged in his Times column. Only 48 are open, just two more are planned for 2018, several have closed, many have experienced recruitment difficulties and a number have failed Ofsted inspections or been embroiled in financial scandals.   At a time when the current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening and outgoing Ofsted boss Michael Wilshire have called for its expansion, why is the UTC initiative running out of steam?

There are in fact many reasons why 14 rather than 11 would be a better age to transfer to a new school, particularly with the majority of young people staying in full-time education till 18, but in the absence of this and with high stakes testing remaining at 16, parents have been reluctant to allow children to transfer from a secondary school where they have become settled. It isn’t clear either how UTCs will fit with the proposed Post-16 Skills Plan where those students not following the academic route through to university will be encouraged to transfer to further education colleges at the end of Year 11.

While there may have been some justification for technical schools in the immediate post-war years –Baker argues that there were never enough of them –there  is much less of a case now, as many ‘middle’ or technician level jobs have been ‘hollowed out’ and if they do continue to exist, are likely to be filled by the excess of graduates. Many employer organisations also argue that future workers  need ‘generic’ and ‘soft’ skills, rather than specialised instruction for jobs that are likely to change, if not disappear completely.

There is no clear evidence that UTCs in themselves have significantly improved employment prospects –though 29% of leavers are reported to have started apprenticeships (much higher than in other types of schools) this is still very low compared to the German technical/vocational schools which the UTCs have sought to emulate, but which have a more direct link with local employment plans. Local employers may continue to sponsor UTCs but this doesn’t mean that they are directly involved with them.

In the run up to the launch of the UTC programme, Baker called for an education that encouraged pupils to ‘get their hands dirty’, but the
alternative curriculum which  UTCs  were supposed to offer has been restricted by  Ebacc and Progress 8 requirements.  As a consequence UTC education has been ‘applied’ as much as ‘practical’ and has continued to be based on GCSEs, which themselves have become more academic and more traditional. Like in other schools, those that are able to are just as likely to continue on to university. (44% are recorded as doing this, higher than in state schools generally)

As a result, in an increasingly differentiated and competitive schools market, UTCs have found it difficult to maintain a distinct brand, becoming schools that nobody really wants.

New apprenticeship figures, but a similar story

 ‘Our goal is for young people to see apprenticeships as a high quality and prestigious path to successful careers’  

     Foreword to English Apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision   HM Government Dec 2015 

 Latest statistics for apprenticeship starts continue to provide a rather different picture to that pained by government ministers. It’s true that there have been over 3 million starts since May 2010 and another 800 000  since 2015, but the majority of these have continued to be at Intermediate (GCSE) Level a standard most young people have already reached. Adult workers  (often existing staff being reclassified as apprentices to secure training funding)  have also benefited the most.

Figures for the period September to November 2016, show a similar story. There were 155,600 new starts, but of these 84,000 were Intermediate Level -and just 58,300 Apprentices were aged under 19.

Apprenticeships continue to be promoted as an alternative to higher education, but by way of comparison, 240 000 UK under 19 year olds accepted university places for September 2016, around one in three of the cohort. In contrast, just 1,700 18 year olds began Higher Level apprenticeships –considered to be equivalent to at least the first year of university study.

It’s noticeable that women  outnumber men (51.1% to 48.9%), this reflecting large numbers of starts in social care and low grade clerical work.

With apprenticeship applications continuing to outstrip vacancies, like other programs designed to accommodate ‘non-academic’ young people, apprenticeships have fallen far short.

Bringing back manufacturing jobs?

 

The UK is not an industrial economy in the traditional sense, despite what some politicians try and persuade us -remember George Osborne’s ‘march of the makers’. Like other countries, the proportion of the GDP devoted to manufacturing has dwindled as consumers become richer and spend a larger proportion of their income on services.  Though it is also true that the process of ‘deindustrialisation’ has been more acute and taken place more quickly than elsewhere. 50 years ago, around 8 million people were employed in manufacturing and the sector absorbed about a third of school leavers. Even as recently as 1982 the sector continued to employ 22% of the workforce. Today 2.6 million earn a living working in manufacturing – barely 8% of all workers, while the sector contributes 10% of national output –down from 14% in 1997.

The decline of manufacturing has been blamed on specific events, or even specific people – for example, during Mrs Thatcher’s first term of office, almost 1 in 4 jobs in the sector disappeared, while more recently, ‘deindustrialisation’ has been linked to the increased ‘outsourcing’ to countries with lower labour costs –  President Trump has pledged to both reintroduce protectionism and to punish American companies that relocate abroad. Unlike in other countries, UK manufacturing has also been hindered by the lack of any real national Industrial Strategy, or anything resembling a National Investment Bank.

Despite all this and despite representing a declining share of GDP, the UK continues to be the world’s 11th largest manufacturing nation – and ONS figures show UK industry has continued to increase on average by about 1.5% a year since 1948 with the sector still accounting for 44% of all exports. Productivity growth in the manufacturing sector has also been stronger than in most other sectors (3.4% compared to a 0.2% increase for the economy generally). Advanced production techniques, mean that three cars roll off the UK’s production lines every minute and output in 2014 was 25% than in 1990, yet employment has fallen from 502,000 in 1971 to the current total of 142,000.

The main reason for both the increase in productivity and the decline of employment in manufacturing has been the introduction of new technology. According to 2015 survey by the Manufacturer on-line journal,koncir_milan-1024x576 little under half of respondents said that they are in the process of implementing a major project, and 21% said that they last did so in 2014. This means that just under two-thirds of UK manufacturing businesses committed to major automation projects in the past two years. Investment in information and communications technology (ICT) continues an upward trend; 61% said they are spending more that year than last.

Even so, the speed at which automation will be introduced should not be overstated – investment in robotics by British manufacturing companies for example, continues to trail that elsewhere. Governments have continued to complain about a shortage of skills, but the number of apprenticeship vacancies posted by the manufacturing sector in 2015/16, was under 30 000 – the majority of these being at a relatively low (skill) level. 

More on the Skills Plan

The DfE and BIS published the long awaited post-16_skills_plan  in the summer of 2016. Based on recommendations from the Sainsbury Review, its main proposal was a new ‘technical route’ with qualifications available from Level 3 and above and with parallel status to the academic pathway. Now included in Theresa May’s industrial-strategy                                             

New technical qualifications are proposed in 15 occupational areas. The new programmes will, it’s argued have ‘genuine labour market value’; be available from 2019, designed by panels of employers and other representatives from industrial sectors. Each programme will include a ‘common core’ including English and maths requirements and digital skills as well as ‘transferable skills’. They will also include work placements.

We should welcome all attempts to improve education and training opportunities for a generation of young people facing increasingly insecure and uncertain employment prospects and recognise that not everybody may want to continue with specialised academic study post-16: nevertheless, its shortcomings can be identified below. 

To begin with, this has all been tried before. Labour introduced (post-14) Specialist Diplomas for different occupational areas in 2008 – also designed by employers – but with a low take up they were abolished by Michael Gore within hours of his coming to office. It could certainly be argued that delaying choices till 16 is a much better outcome, a key recommendation of the Wolf Review.

Schools have been excluded. Young people wishing to follow one of the new routes need to transfer to local colleges, which, it must be assumed, will now be organised through new Institutes of Technology announced by May.   Many schools will be reluctant to lose large numbers of sixth form students as there will be serious financial implications. Improved relationship between schools and colleges will be required. Alternatively, schools will continue to offer the Applied awards -like those for Business Studies, Health & Social Care and Information Technology, which do not currently count towards Tech Level qualifications.  Applied qualifications attract approaching 100 000 students every year.

Though May has promised to inject £170 million, many of the further education colleges that are expected to deliver the new technical qualifications will remain under huge financial pressures. The current area reviews of post-16 education may reduce opportunities for technical and vocational learning still further as colleges are closed or merged.  Private providers are also likely to expand.

In recent years, Post-16 students have continued to use vocational and technical qualifications for university entry, but they have often mixed these with academic courses. The new proposals, despite a promise of ‘bridges’ between the two pathways will largely put an end to this practice.  Meanwhile academic education remains unchanged and there are no plans for future reform.

The new technical route will be linked to employment based apprenticeship   training, but the government has not been able to deliver real apprenticeship opportunities for those under 19.  Most remain at Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and are started by adults/existing employees. It won’t be possible to transfer from the technical to the apprenticeship route as the Plan implies. Beginning an apprenticeship is dependent on having a full-time job.

Many studies of the labour market also suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are disappearing because of technological changes and automation.  Many studies of the labour market also suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are disappearing because of technological changes and automation.  While there is a need for young people to have better generic and transferable skills, it isn’t clear if the specific occupational skills the government says there is a shortage of will continue to be required.  Wouldn’t it be better for everybody to enjoy a good general education and then have access to specific job training, if and when required?

Arguably the Plan is less to do with developing employment skills and is more about  trying to stem the number of young people going on to higher education as a result of the absence of  proper alternatives, but ending up ‘overqualified and underemployed’

 

A new technical route?

Technical and vocation education would appear to be one of the main thbeneficiaries of Theresa May’s new ‘industrial strategy’.   May has announced £170m of additional funding for institutes of technology (we assume this will involve an upgrading of existing FE provision on a regional basis)

While several high-tech sectors have been identified, the government will use the industrial strategy to relaunch the post-16_skills_plan one of the last policy statements produced by David Cameron’s administration which sets out 15 new routes into high skilled employment, enabling those young people not going to university to gain a technical qualification at level 3 and above.

Though this will sound an attractive opportunity for many who work in the UK’s ailing and underfunded college sector, it isn’t clear whether it will help employment opportunities for the 50 % of young people who don’t go on to HE – neither is it a particularly new idea (remember New Labour’s infamous 14-19-specialist-diplomas, which were axed by Michael Gove during his first week as education minister?)

In the past, there may have been some truth in the argument that Britain had fallen behind other countries in terms of the level of ‘intermediate’ skills held by its workforce and many commentators continue to see the German system of vocational education and apprenticeships as the way forward. But it’s now increasingly recognised that many skilled and ‘technician’ level jobs across the economy are disappearing because of further  automation and digitisation and that where they do continue to exist, they are likely to be filled by graduates who find themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’.

So, it’s unclear whether ‘vocational alternatives’ are really needed, or whether young people should be encouraged to develop more generic/general skills to enable them to move across different economic sectors and to be able to take up very different types of employment during their working lives. But, in any case it’s also very possible that there won’t be enough highly skilled jobs for everybody qualified to do them and that (as is the case now) it will be unskilled work at the lower end of the service sector that will continue to increase. 

In other words, it’s likely that its growing inequalities, rather than lack of skills that will be the main problem in labour markets of the future and thus governments will need alternative strategies to address these.

Apprenticeships : many more applications than vacancies

Recent Department for Education statistics show that the number of apprenticeship applications far outstrip the number of apprenticeship vacancies.

For example, between Aug 2015/16 there were a total of 1,656,680 applications for 211,380 vacancies a ratio of about 8 to 1 – about half of these were from 17-18 year olds. Three quarters of vacancies were for Intermediate (GCSE level) positions. The figures do not allow us to calculate the number of young people wanting apprenticeships because they will include multi applications, but they do reflect a continued shortage of opportunities. The largest number of vacancies are in the Business, Administration and Law category – well over a third. In comparison, there were just over 8000 vacancies in Construction ( a sector considered to be suffering from skill shortages) and  30 000  in engineering and manufacturing, a 20% increase on the previous year.  

These totals are based on ‘on-line’ vacancies only and do not include the large number of (mainly low-level) apprenticeships created by regrading existing existing workers, allowing employers to qualify for funding

Full statistics: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/fe-data-library-apprenticeship-vacancies-archive