The future of technical and professional education: joining up the dots

By Tami McCrone

Friday 20 May 2016

The Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN) workshop held last week on the future of technical and professional education was as current, relevant and thought-provoking as ever.

The discussion made a very worthwhile contribution to joining up the dots and it was stimulating and certainly tackled some of the challenges surrounding technical and professional education such as data, curriculum, pedagogy and qualifications, and institutional and structural issues.

Speakers included Ann-Marie Bathmaker (University of Birmingham), Richard Boniface (RCU Ltd), Ewart Keep (Oxford University), Kevin Orr University of Huddersfield), and David Corke (Association of Colleges).

I look forward to the summary of the discussions.

There is much current commentary on the subject of technical and professional education such as the recent article in FE Week that starts by claiming:

The first skills white paper in a decade will bring an end to mixed provision and make 16-year-olds choose between academic courses leading to university or a new technical professional education (TPE) route into work, FE Week can exclusively reveal.

And, of course, in addition to the forthcoming white paper, we all await the output from the independent expert panel headed up by former Minister of Science and Innovation Lord Sainsbury, which is made up of experts from industry and further and higher education and whose delayed report on technical and professional education is expected later this year.

So where to now for young people – of all abilities – who do not want to do A Levels and do not want to study academic subjects at university? Will they and their parents instantly take up these new technical and professional routes?

One thing I know with certainty (because there is plenty of underpinning evidence) is that if we want our young people to make sound decisions that lead them to employment that they want to get out of bed to do every morning, they need to be informed about the world of work and all available routes to employment. They need to understand themselves better, their strengths and weaknesses, how to make decisions, and they need to be able to discuss their options with adults who understand all the current routes into employment. And they need to meet employers.

Who remembers the 14–19 Diplomas? The findings from the NFER national evaluation of the implementation and delivery of Diplomas still makes good reading now. The Diplomas offered 14 distinct vocational routes to 14-year-olds as an alternative to academic routes. As the following key finding illustrates, it is a complex business introducing new routes and qualifications:

The evaluation found that the information advice and guidance (IAG) provided to learners could be improved to ensure that they understand the [Diploma] programme and are equipped to make an informed decision about their choices. There was evidence that staff knowledge of the Diploma and their ability to provide information to learners was inadequate. There was a lack of consistency across institutions with regard to IAG.

Learners appeared generally satisfied with their Diploma course. However, there was some evidence to suggest that it had not always met expectations, for example, the lower than expected amount of practical activities and the higher than expected level of challenge of the functional skills examinations.

Whatever the outcome of the Sainsbury review and whatever is in the skills paper, what is certain is that the new technical and professional routes will not succeed unless they are introduced appropriately. I suggest that they are introduced in a timely manner so that there is widespread understanding of the routes by young people, parents, teachers providing guidance to young people, subject teachers (of all stages) and employers. Young people will need to understand the content of the course, the learning styles (e.g. how much is academic or theoretical and how much is more vocational or applied in nature), the location(s) of learning the method(s) of assessment, and subsequent progression routes. The role of the school in this is critical as demonstrated in this evidence-informed paper presented at the 2012 Edge conference:

Schools can make a difference to the content and types of careers information available to young people, the mechanisms and stages of delivery of guidance and to further informing the people from whom young people receive careers guidance. As young people are aware of the content, learning styles, location of learning and subsequent progression routes from A Levels, so they are entitled to have this information about technical, practical and vocational education and training courses, such as apprenticeships.

Clearly the role of employers is also important and recent research has illustrated the impact that careers guidance and employer input has on young people’s future earnings. The evidence draws on the British Cohort Study 1970 and investigated the link between career talks by external speakers and employment outcomes, and finds some evidence that young people who participated in more career talks at age 14–16 enjoyed a wage premium 10 years later at age 26.

So new technical and professional routes for young people – great!

But let’s just make sure that this time the introduction of them is not rushed, that there is widespread understanding of them and that one very important dot that is joined up is careers education and guidance so young people can make informed decisions.