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’


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