December 2016

The know zone

  • The road ahead
    There’s a new emphasis on technical qualifications in the government’s plans for skills post-16. Kevin Gilmartin examines what’s in store. More
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  • A hitch for universal translators
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There’s a new emphasis on technical qualifications in the government’s plans for skills post-16. Kevin Gilmartin examines what’s in store.

The road ahead

In what proved to be a very lively summer, the publication in July of the government’s Post-16 Skills Plan may have slipped under the radar. The report was based on the recommendations of a panel led by Lord Sainsbury, which many consider proposed the most radical changes to vocational education ever seen.

With Nick Boles (since replaced as skills minister by Robert Halfon) promising to implement the report in full – “subject to budgetary constraints” – what might it mean for 16–19 education?

What’s in a name?

The fact that the official title of the report was The Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education is highly significant. The term ‘vocational’ seems to have disappeared with the emphasis on building technical skills, which, in the government’s view, bring the best job prospects to young people and the greatest return on public investment to UK PLC.

What options will students have?

Our 16–19 year-olds will follow either an academic or technical pathway. The academic pathway seems to offer little change to the traditional study of A levels and/or applied qualifications (applied qualifications are currently the subject of a further review). It is with the technical pathway, however, that real changes to existing provision would occur.

In the technical pathway, students would follow one of two options. Apprenticeships will form one option while the other would be to follow one of 15 sector-specific technical routes, as outlined in the diagram (right). These would probably be studied in a college.

Interestingly, the report makes no mention of any role for schools.

15 technical routes

The routes will be designed by the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). Many have expressed concern, however, about the technical capacity of the institute to produce effective standards for the new qualifications, especially as one single set of standards should apply to both apprenticeships and college provision.

Employers are also expected to step up and lead the single awarding body that will be licensed to design the relevant qualifications for each route. IfATE will become the regulator for all technical qualifications, while Ofqual will retain responsibility for academic awards. However, the report makes little mention of teachers and lecturers, other than in relation to assessment, so there seems to be no intention to include them on the expert panels for each route.

Not yet ready to access the pathways?

A transition year at age 16 will be on offer for those not yet ready to access the academic or technical pathway. It is hoped that providers will have flexibility in designing this programme with a common core of English, maths and digital skills and possibly other GCSE retakes (detail on the English and maths content and/or level is not yet clear).

What else is included?

The emphasis on building work-ready skills is clear with the inclusion of specific recommendations on work experience (students should have access to a minimum two weeks of ‘high quality’ experience) and a common national approach to careers guidance through adopting the Gatsby benchmarks (devised by Sir John Holman for the Gatsby Charitable Foundation).

The report also acknowledged that these steps will require more funding but, with the government focused on implementing a national funding formula, hoping for more money may be optimistic.

Can students change their mind?

The proposal for flexible bridging provision is recommended to enable individuals to move between the academic and technical education options and to support adults returning to study. The duration, content and start times of this provision are unclear.

Next steps

The implementation timetable seems very tight. It envisages competition for licences to award the new qualifications opening in September 2018 for courses starting in September 2019. As they should also allow progression through to levels 4–6 then the challenge here is very clear.

The government also hopes to address some of the inevitable negativity, particularly the view that the recommendations perpetuate and reinforce a historic, elitist divide between the academic and vocational, or that they are a partial return to the ill-fated diplomas of the noughties.

However, many educational commentators do see this as an opportunity to be positive about the proposals in terms of assigning appropriate value to technical qualifications and with clear career pathways and qualifications that employers actually understand.

We await the next government announcement – in late autumn, it is hoped, after the new ministerial team has bedded in – with great interest.

Kevin Gilmartin is ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist