5 stumbling blocks faced by skills initiatives

5 stumbling blocks faced by skills initiatives

Paul Steer comments on some of the issues featured in the latest issue of OCR's Policy Briefing, a round-up of the latest education and skills news.

The 'modern industrial strategy' presented in the recent Green Paper is a meaty document with its 10 'pillars' ranging from topics such as Upgrading Infrastructure to Encouraging Trade. A whole pillar is dedicated to Developing Skills and offers an overview of skills policies in one place - mainly existing skills plans but sprinkled with the odd new announcement.

First out of the traps is the plan for technical education. Not surprisingly, it repeats the view that there is currently a 'complex array of qualifications' in the vocational space which needs to be replaced by new qualifications, developed with employers, and organised into a simplified 15 'routes' – more about that later.

Further Education is accused of being largely made up of "a broad generalist curriculum at lower qualifications levels" and we are told that "the sector has too little provision of higher level technical qualifications". There are concerns about the low levels of teacher contact time in FE - fewer than 17 hours per week, when Norway manages 28 hours per week.

According to the Green Paper, there is a need to ramp up the volume of technical education in FE and to create new Institutes of Technology. These, we are told, will specialise in technical disciplines, "such as STEM", aligned with local skills requirements. Students will be provided with a new UCAS-style system to navigate their way to the courses that best suit them; the loans system for post 19 students is to be reviewed; and £170 million of capital funding will be available to establish the new Institutes. In order to increase the availability of new technical educators to deliver the new courses, the paper assures us, "we will attract more industry specialists."

There are other ambitious plans in the 'skills pillar'. Much is made of the need to improve basic skills in maths and English with tacit acknowledgement that the current maths and English GCSE re-sit policy isn’t going to plan.

The solution, it hopes, lies in the ongoing revisions to Functional Skills and in supporting FE colleges to become 'centres of excellence for teaching maths and English'. There are also plans to create specialist maths schools 'across the country'.

A lack of basic digital skills is seen as being a problem for the adult population. 10 million adults, we are told, lack basic digital skills and a firm commitment is made to providing digital skills training free of charge to those adults who need it.

Although the strategy is unhappy about a dominance of low level, generalist learning that takes place at FE, it still acknowledges that not everyone will be ready at 16 to take the plunge into an academic or technical route. It takes up the proposals from the DfE Skills Plan for a 'transition year'. Rather than students churning through "a series of low level qualifications", it claims a transition year will give them an opportunity to "catch up with their peers". There is little indication what might be delivered in this transition year beyond "intensive support in maths and English".

The strategy goes on to look at what needs to be done to encourage greater uptake of STEM subjects and drops hints about the soon-to-be-published Smith review of post 16 mathematics. Here, references to technical qualifications disappear and, instead, the concern is about an insufficient number of people taking A Level qualifications in maths, sciences and engineering. Apparently, Professor Smith will point to disparities of take up between boys and girls and between regions – and we are given some startling statistics showing that, in Reading, 57% of post-16 students study some kind of Level 3 maths, but in Knowsley, the percentage is only 7%. It will be interesting to see if the Smith review envisages a model where technical qualifications are taken alongside some A Level choices.

A Research and Innovation pillar takes forward a strong interest in the importance of STEM for the future economy. Much is made, quite rightly, of things like graphene, solar batteries and autonomous vehicles. For those who worry about a lack of emphasis on our creative industries (worth £87 billion a year), there is some solace in the announcement that Sir Peter Bazalgette is to review how the UK's creative industries "can help underpin our future prosperity". There is no reference to how the EBacc performance measure is depressing the take up of creative subjects – perhaps that’s something for Sir Peter’s report.

In conclusion, this is all radical stuff and yet strangely familiar. None of the plans are remarkably different to previous initiatives under previous governments. The creation of specialist institutions has been a feature of education policy for decades, though maybe in a piecemeal fashion. Ministers of every hue have bemoaned the existence of a 'qualifications jungle' and have tried to simplify the system with the likes of GNVQs, Diplomas and the Credit and Qualifications Framework. Anyone who recalls the Gremlin adverts will know that Basic Skills has long been a hot topic. And the idea of putting employers at the heart of vocational education has been a mantra since the days of David Blunkett and before.

This isn't to say that these plans are just the same old recycled policies – history doesn't quite repeat itself and we face very new circumstances. However, the reasons why previous skills initiatives have failed are remarkably consistent. Here are some of the stumbling blocks:

Workforce capacity – it is very difficult to attract enough specialist teachers and trainers at the best of times and the current shortages in teachers throughout the system is concerning;

Progression from Level 1 and 2 – policy makers always underestimate how long it can take for students who have underperformed at school to 'catch up'. It may well be that the system has been under ambitious for this large group of young people, but the so-called 'low level' and 'generalist' FE provision is a response to this need;

Simplifying the system – technical education requires many, many different courses and qualifications, levels and specialisms so that all prior attempts at simplification have hit the buffers sooner or later;

Managing stakeholders – often the very organisations set up to co-ordinate stakeholders and implement initiatives become part of a tangled confusion of overlapping roles and mixed expectations.

Staying power – too often, plans and promises are abandoned when the going gets tough.

Every time we get a new set of plans to resolve problems in the skills system, someone has always warned us we are drinking at the last chance saloon, but the truth is, whatever the difficulties, committed people throughout the system have kept the show on the road. With Brexit comes a new urgency to get things right; even if things don’t go quite to plan, let’s hope these changes shake down into something that brings new opportunities to young people and plays a part in growing our economy.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

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