The Case for Technical and Professional Education
by Alun Francis
Principal & Chief Executive Oldham College
In July 2016, the Government published The Sainsbury Review of Technical Education and a new Skills Plan, which promises to radically change post 16 education.
At 16, young people will have a clear choice - either an “academic” or a “technical and professional” route.
What does this mean?
The academic route (A Levels) is well understood by teachers, parents and pupils, but other options are not.
Vocational qualifications cover a myriad of jobs and professions, ranging from entry to postgraduate level. So they are complex and there are lots of them. Faced with this, people confuse them with old-fashioned trades, and – failing to understand what they involve – assume that they are exclusively for lower achieving school leavers.
See Guardian Article
What is wrong with things as they are?
This creates a dysfunctional system with everyone following the same pathways as their first choice. While the “academic” route is a great experience for some – too many graduates end up with jobs that do not need a degree.
Degrees are expensive and there are cheaper and – and depending on the industry – better ways of acquiring the same level of skills. Too many degrees develop the same “generic” skill sets – and employers complain that they cannot find the specialist skills they need.
Far too many young people end up disappointed and frustrated, their self - esteem on the floor, feeling that they have “failed” because they have made the wrong choice and have to start again, wasting their time and precious public funding.
What is the solution?
The Government aims to solve this problem by redesigning the vocational system. There will be 15 Technical and Professional Pathways, aligned with economic sectors and careers. They will have a robust curriculum, strong employer involvement, high quality work experience, and a mixture of practical and theoretical skills and knowledge. Each will include options for classroom courses, apprenticeships, learning in the workplace and university entry. And they will be made much easier to understand.
What difference will this make?
If it works, then we should see more school leavers – including those with high GCSE grades at 16, and others with A levels at 18 – choosing the Technical and Professional pathways. They will be more work focused, more flexible, and offer routes into high skilled, high paid occupations, without necessarily incurring high degrees of debt – although university will remain a real option. These pathways will be easier to understand and many of the myths about them will be exploded. And they will all lead directly into work.
How will it help Oldham?
Oldham needs this solution as much, if not more, than anywhere else. Technical education was originally central to the town’s prosperity. We have the 1937 Student Record book in my office, which shows the range of courses studied by engineers and cotton spinners – including maths, English, commerce, foreign languages and geography. They were rigorous programmes, valued highly be employers. In those days, however, the economic structure was simple. The main employers were in two main industries. The Greater Manchester post - industrial economy is much more complex than this, with so many smaller employers and such a wide range of industries to work across.
As this new economy has developed, Oldham completely lost its focus on technical education. Many will remember, only a few years ago, the “University town” vision which shaped education policy and investment. This strategy ignored the needs of at least half the population, misunderstood the nature of the economy, and – the evidence suggests - made little difference to the overall economic well - being of Oldham residents. And it contributed toward Oldham acquiring the worst infrastructure for technical education in Greater Manchester.