Article Published in the Guardian on 8 March 2017.
A new ‘T-Level’ system, which overhauls how technical education is taught and administered, aims to put the courses on an equal footing with academic work and improve Britain’s levels of productivity, which currently lag behind the United States and Germany.
The plans announced in the budget will increase the number of hours students train by 50% and replace the current 13,000 qualifications with 15. Extra funding of £500m a year will pay for the new system, according to the government.
The changes to the way technical education is managed come following a government-commissioned review by Lord Sainsbury. During his budget speech, Philip Hammond acknowledged that the UK is now near the bottom of the international league table for technical education.
“There is still a lingering doubt about the parity of esteem attaching to technical education,” he said. While the academic route through education, from GCSEs to A-levels and on, is well-regarded, more needs to be done for technical education, says the budget document.
“England’s technical education system is confusing for students, with around 13,000 qualifications available – many of them of little value,” it states. The 15 new courses will include catering and hospitality, construction, social care and engineering and manufacturing, amongst others.
Under the well-flagged announcement, the number of programme hours for 16 to 19-year-olds will be increased by 50% to an average of 900 hours a year. Each student will do a three-month work placement as part of their course.
The changes are expected to come into effect from 2019, with additional funding of over £500m per year once the courses are up and running, according to Hammond. The plan was widely circulated in advance of the budget as part of an attempt to increase the status of technical education.
The announcement received a cautious welcome. Marcus Fagent, from design and consultancy firm Arcadis, said significant capital investment would be needed in addition to the £500m per annum commitment because further education colleges had reduced spare space in recent years because of a shortage of funding.
“Schools have received no funding for space other than that needed to deliver the academic curriculum in recent years, as capital spending has been driven down by efficient space models and standardised design and specification,” he said.
“By comparison in the Netherlands, where there is a better technical training provision, every secondary school is built with an additional 650 square metres of non-academic training space; an investment of more than £1.5m per school.”
The Association of School and College Leaders criticised the absence of more funding for students studying for A-levels. “Currently, schools and colleges are having to reduce the number of GCSE, A-level and vocational courses they provide because of funding pressures, and technical subjects are among those affected,” said interim general secretary Malcolm Trobe. “We are concerned that there is a lack of joined up thinking from government over technical education, and that underfunding is leading to a reduced curriculum in general for young people.”
Accenture’s Emma McGuigan said the new measures would only be successful if sufficient numbers of young people chose to take up technical education. “Currently, a significant proportion of young people, especially girls, are put off Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects because they are unclear about what careers they support, while the perception that these subjects are just for boys persists,” she said.
The government wants students to study in National Colleges or Institutes of Technology and said it would provide maintenance loans, similar to those given to university students, to those on technical education courses at levels four to six in these institutions.
Other details announced to upskill the workforce include spending £40m to test ways for people to retrain through their working life and £5m for research to increase the number of people returning to work following lengthy career breaks.
The budget moves in education come as part of an attempt by the Treasury to increase productivity. In 2015, the UK average output per hour was 35% less than Germany and 30% less than the US. “Weaknesses in the UK’s skills base have contributed to its longstanding productivity gap with France and Germany,” said the budget document.
In his speech, the chancellor said: “The truth is that we languish near the bottom of the international league tables for technical education.” The lack of skills amongst the workforce is constantly cited by employers as a “major concern” according to the Treasury.