Innovative approaches to technical education: new and original or just old hard hat?

By David Sims

Thursday 26 July 2018

It was a pleasure to chair one of the four ‘NFER debates’ at the Festival of Education 2018. The debate focused on the current extensive reform of technical education, a timely topic given that the Government is driving through one of the biggest shake-ups in the English qualifications system for years. Valuable contributions were made by the distinguished panel: Helen Beardmore, Education Delivery Manager, Edge Foundation; Patrick Craven, Director, Quality, Policy and Stakeholder Engagement, City and Guilds; Jonathan Nicholls, Principal, Reading UTC; and Tami McCrone, Senior Research Manager, NFER, who leads our education-to-employment research portfolio.  

The context of the debate is significant and far-reaching. Policymakers’ plans to transform technical education include creating a common framework of 15 technical routes and overhauling technical qualifications to ensure that they meet employers’ requirements. As part of this, there is the introduction of T levels, a major new set of qualifications being developed which are the technical alternative to A levels. Most are two-year college-based programmes, with learning in the classroom and/or workshop, and a significant industry placement of at least 45 days. The first three T levels in construction, digital, and education and childcare are due to be offered from autumn 2020, although there has been much debate about the feasibility of this.

There are three main policy drivers of this reform agenda: economic drivers to increase economic growth and national productivity; technical drivers to help address the skills mismatch and provide a talent pipeline with appropriate technical skills; and social drivers to increase access to technical education and equip more young people with the skills they need to develop productive careers in the 21st century economy. The T level agenda responds to predicted changes in the nature of work, and specifically the impact of the digital revolution, the need for improved STEM skills and the emerging application of artificial intelligence.

Whilst acknowledging the need and urgency to improve technical education, the panel examined how innovative the reforms really are. It was noted that there are some similarities between the new T levels and the diplomas for 14-19 year olds introduced in England in 2008 and later discarded.   The diplomas were not taken up because they were too complicated for young people, parents and teachers to understand. With this in mind, the messages from NFER’s national evaluation of the implementation of diplomas are relevant to the introduction of T levels:

  • raise awareness of the qualifications through high-quality information, advice and guidance for young people and their parents
  • ensure that appropriate young people are enrolled on the new qualification
  • support professionals in preparing for and delivering the programmes.

These might appear to be common-sense actions but if the implementation of T levels fails to embrace them, the currency and take up of the qualifications could be undermined.

The panel highlighted some innovative approaches to technical education in England and the USA in its discussions, such as the University Technical College (UTC) movement in England with its wide-ranging employer involvement in governance, curriculum development, careers advice and mentoring and creative ways of linking schools with employers in Nashville, Tennessee which offers a powerful illustration of what can be achieved by a whole-city approach such as improved student motivation and outcomes. The debate threw light on the need for further progress if England is to achieve a sustained transformation leading to a world-class system of technical education. Panellists observed that this will only be realised when schools’ and colleges’ institutional culture prioritising effective employer engagement to enrich young people’s education and training becomes the norm.

The panel identified several major challenges bestriding the current reform of technical education. These include bringing clarity to the system which is confusing for many stakeholders as a result of constant and inconsistent change. Another challenge is agreeing how the reformed system should be accountable and to whom: is it possible to achieve the right balance of the best interests of young people and employers? A third challenge and potential obstacle, will involve harnessing sufficient quality employer involvement in the T level programmes. Whilst the panel noted employer participation in the system, for example in the work of UTCs and the delivery of the TechBac qualification, is not new, they thought that providing meaningful work placements on the scale required by T levels would be a considerable challenge for colleges and employers.

Since the debate, Ofqual has launched its consultation on the regulation of technical qualifications that sit within T levels with just a four-week window for responding - a further indication of the pace with which these reforms are moving. The role for research institutes like NFER is to map and analyse the fast-moving changes in the technical education landscape and provide evidence-based insights into their implementation which can be used formatively to ensure that all stakeholders benefit from the reforms.

All four NFER debates are now available to watch here.