Fixing the foundations

Fixing the foundations

Anyone looking for a blueprint of the Treasury’s priorities over the next 5 years could do worse than settling down with a mug of cocoa and a copy of Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation. Using productivity as its central theme, this 15 point plan covers a lot of territory from airports to broadband from European trade agreements to resurgent cities.

After reading the report you come away with the impression of a government that believes a lot of things need fixing and quickly. The tone is a bit tetchy at times, like a bad school report, and littered with unfavourable comparisons including the much-repeated claim that it now takes a worker in the UK five days to produce what his or her counterparts in Germany can deliver in four.

Not surprisingly, given that this is a plan to improve productivity, a key chapter is about skills and human capital. Although the DfE continues to proclaim it has ushered in a new era of high quality vocational qualifications based on the recommendations of the Wolf Report on Vocational Education, the prognosis from the treasury is not good, citing a “failure to grow a serious system of respected employer-led professional and technical qualifications”.

The report states time and again that we simply don’t have the higher level technical qualifications we need to deliver a highly skilled workforce and the plan is to “radically simplify and streamline further education qualifications”. According to the report, we need new, clear routes to the higher technical levels and these are to be designed by ‘catapult centres’ and ‘elite professional institutes’. Perhaps this will also present an opportunity to review the current monopoly that Pearson has on HNCs and HNDs – a point not raised in the otherwise excellent Pearson-sponsored Higher Education Policy Institute paper, Raising productivity by improving higher technical education: Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum, which takes a nuanced look at the very issue of higher level technical qualifications.

But it isn’t just qualifications that are up for a radical rethink – Fixing the Foundations gives us some insight into the thinking behind the coming review of post 16 training and education institutions. Getting the technical skills we need means upping the availability and quality of specialist training and it follows that new types of institution are needed for this: namely National Colleges (specialising in high level, sector-specific technical training), and prestigious Institutes of Technology. We learn that “many colleges will be invited to specialise according to local economic priorities, to provide better targeted basic skills alongside professional and technical education” and some other colleges, no doubt, will be invited to close.

Funding arrangements are going to have to change as well, with plans for “a new system for accreditations and funding” which will be aligned to local and regional needs and guided by “formal industry representation”. Outside of Apprenticeships (which get plenty of coverage in the report) and Basic Skills (which get a few mentions, and are linked to proposed Youth Obligation), higher level technical qualifications, and pathways that lead to them, are portrayed as the number one priority for the further education sector. Pulling all this together could be a recipe for one of the biggest upheavals in FE for decades but great care must be taken not to displace the existing core provision for 16-18 year olds, especially at Levels 2 and 3, unless there is certainty of appropriate alternatives.

There is much else in the report that relates to education and training in one way or another, including familiar territory about coasting schools, the argument for an independent College of Teaching and the Government’s desire that schools should offer “a broad and rigorous academic curriculum, building knowledge, skills, character and resilience.” There are clear plans to further expand HE, fuelled by loans rather than grants, so that access is available for “anyone with the right qualifications”. A great deal of the report is quite rightly spent on the importance of science and technology to economic growth, right down to the importance of increasing the number of girls who take A Levels in science subjects. What is surprising is that there are no references to creativity, the arts, culture or sport – things which make a massive contribution to our economy, but it may be that the Chancellor thinks that these areas will take care of themselves and there is nothing that needs fixing.

Finally, Fixing the Foundations promises to publish a National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) for Skills “this summer”. This must be the same NIP for Skills that was originally promised back in April. And it would appear from a statement on the government website that the date for publication has now slipped into September. Given the scale of ambition of the Treasury’s plans and its finite resources, it is hardly surprising if the odd plan doesn’t get written to schedule – but it does beg the question as to whether one of those highly productive Germans would have written it by now.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR