The independent Industrial Strategy Commission has today issued its emerging findings (.pdf). Commissioner Professor Andy Westwood describes why ambition alone won’t be enough for its proposed skills reforms.
- The Industrial Strategy’s technical education proposals will be the 29th major reform of skills since the 1980s
- This reflects a long-term UK weaknesses in skills – especially technical education
- There are new plans to introduce ‘T-Level’ qualifications and Institutes of Technology in every major city which would be linked to leading universities
- However, T-Levels are doomed to fail unless properly linked to other objectives and themes in the Industrial Strategy
In a recent report from the Institute for Government, further education and skills reform is described as ‘the worst failure of domestic British public policy since the Second World War’. It concluded that plans to develop new ‘T-Levels’ (recommended following a review led by Lord Sainsbury) will be the twenty-ninth major reform of vocational education since the early 1980s. In less than four decades, there have been 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 Secretaries of State with relevant responsibilities and no organisation focused on skills policy has survived longer than a decade.
Each has failed to solve some of our most stubborn education problems. The UK’s technical education system has long been weak by international standards. In basic skills, England is the only country in the OECD where 16 to 24-year olds are ‘no more literate or numerate than 55 to 64-year olds’. Only 10% of 20 to 40- year olds hold technical education as their highest qualification, placing the UK 16th out of 20 OECD countries. By 2020, the UK is set to fall to 28th out of 32 OECD countries for intermediate (upper-secondary) skills.
“Worryingly detached from the world around it” – current proposals for skills and technical education
England, in particular, has a weak technical sector, largely underfunded, hardly noticed, and run in totally different and disconnected ways from both the higher education and school sectors that sit either side of it.
Of course, any sensible policy should aim to get the best skills available to the firms and sectors that drive the economy. It makes sense then that skills form one of the Government’s ‘ten pillars’ in the Industrial Strategy green paper published earlier this year. But, as with previous reforms, it stands apart from other pillars – and worryingly detached from the world around it.
When the Industrial Strategy was launched, plans for ‘T-levels’ and new Institutes of Technology led the Government’s story. Replacing a confusing number of vocational qualifications currently available to 16 to 19-year olds in schools and colleges, T-levels are to be offered across fifteen pathways, incorporating 300 more teaching hours alongside compulsory work experience. Institutes of Technology will offer ‘prestigious’ technical training.
But both initiatives predate the Industrial Strategy. The Skills Plan, responding to Lord Sainsbury’s Review, was published in July 2016 in the final days of David Cameron’s government. Institutes of Technology were first announced in George Osborne’s 2015 Productivity Plan. There were no plans for a broader industrial strategy at that time. Both initiatives first surfaced before a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was created in Theresa May’s reshuffle of departments later in the same month.
Now the proposals are published, neither the timetables nor the resources look transformative. The Budget in March 2017 made £500m available for introducing ‘T levels’. But as FE Week reported at the time, T-Levels won’t start to be taught until at least September 2019 and won’t be fully rolled-out until 2022. So far, only £170m capital funding has been made available for Institutes of Technology but over two years after their initial announcement, there is no timetable for their introduction and no detailed plan for what they will do.
So these were policies that had been prepared earlier – resurfacing in the ‘write around’ when BEIS were looking for green paper content. The proposals were perhaps the whitest part of a very green paper. Even the consultation timetable ran differently to the rest of the strategy – with a closing date ahead of the Budget in March rather than the April deadline for everything else. The Department for Education (DFE) had, it seemed, already made its mind up.
Ambition and integration – the keys to Industrial Strategy success
The rest of the Industrial Strategy talks in much more detail about the demand side, about science and research, about ‘place’ and about firms and sectors doing things differently in the context of a new cross-cutting approach to policy. This should also be providing the context for skills reform, but isn’t. All of this, as well as other policy measures in other pillars, are incidental to the Skills Plan. There is very little about demand (or the lack of it) or how new technical skills might be utilised. Nothing about the sectors and firms that do too little training. As with many previous approaches, it assumes that it’s only the supply side that needs sorting out.
The status of detailed announcements in the Conservative Election manifesto will need to be considered too. It is even more ambitious and much more specific. ‘World class technical education, underpinned by prestigious new institutes of technology with the freedoms that make our universities great.’ Institutes of Technology will be ‘backed by leading universities in every major city’. A ‘major review of tertiary funding’ was also planned as well as a promise to produce ‘the best programme of learning and training for people in work in the developed world’.
Our job this time, if we are to get an Industrial Strategy right is to ensure that ‘T-Levels’ and Institutes of Technology are properly linked to other policies as well as to the demand side. They must also be more flexible and adaptable according to place. At the moment they are not. The UK is geographically unbalanced in both its stock and flow of skills; most towns, cities and regions outside London and the South East have lower skills levels, volumes and more often than not, weaker and less well-funded institutions. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to work. Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre provides a blueprint for change with employer investment (Boeing, Rolls Royce and McClaren), applied research and a thriving apprenticeship programme. It is linked to a leading university (The University of Sheffield) and specialises in a sector key to both the local and national economy.
As we move to a white paper in the Autumn, these issues need to be addressed. Curriculum and institutional reform must be more consciously and practically linked to other pillars and policies in the Industrial Strategy otherwise they will go the way of previous efforts. While the Industrial Strategy as a whole could be more ambitious, that is not the case for technical education. Major skills reforms are far too common. If this time is to be different, then they must be a proper part of an integrated approach.