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High quality technical education would help our pupils and economy thrive

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The current education system is letting down pupils who would thrive on technical and vocational education because of a misplaced focus on a purely academic education – that’s the message from a number of school leaders surveyed as part of The Key’s State of Education report, published today. And while school leaders believe things have got worse, if we’re honest the statement above would have been applicable in any of the last few decades. The UK’s seemingly intractable problem of failing to provide high quality technical education deserves a special place alongside House of Lords reform in the pantheon of policy problems no one seems able to solve.

In part this can be traced back to the Education Act 1944. The intention was to create a tripartite system, whereby pupils would either attend grammar schools, secondary moderns or ‘secondary technical schools’, which were to teach scientific and engineering skills. In reality, however, very few secondary technical schools were set up, primarily due to a lack of funding and teachers. Some things never change.

Since then, governments have repeatedly promised to reform technical education, ‘give it parity of esteem’ with ‘academic’ education, and right that historic wrong. Notable attempts include Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and the current government’s incoming ‘T-Levels’, a choice of 15 technical qualifications promoted as an alternative to A-levels. There are only around 50 UTCs, however, and we will have to wait to see how successful the current government’s attempt is.

T-Levels will be taken by pupils post 16, like A-levels, and the Conservative party’s election manifesto’s aims for technical education are firmly based in options after GCSE. Secondary school leaders, however, believe we should also be concerned about a narrowing of the curriculum before this point. 80% believe that the EBacc measure is actively limiting opportunities for pupils with a vocational/technical aptitude who may not thrive in a purely 'academic' environment. And Progress 8, which has space for only 3 non-Ebacc qualifications to be included, is also preventing schools from encouraging pupils to pursue vocational education, according to secondary school leaders.

Taken together, you can see how the current assessment and accountability system incentivises schools to prioritise ‘academic’ subjects. To be fair, that was the last government’s intention, so it’s not an accident of design. The problem is that after Brexit we have a new government, with new priorities, and a return to the idea that pupils are better off being streamed at different points into differing types of education. Hence the return of grammars and the introduction of T-levels. The performance measures that schools are judged on, though, are still geared up to encourage everyone to pursue the academic route. 56% of secondary school leaders believe that changes to curriculum and school performance measures over the past two years have had a negative impact on the provision of vocational/technical education in their school.

All this leads nearly three quarters of secondary school leaders to say that pupils with an aptitude for vocational or technical subjects are not being best supported by the current school system. This has the potential to be incredibly damaging for not only the pupils themselves, but the future success of the UK economy, as it compounds the existing skills shortage in the labour market.

The Hays 2016 Global Skill Index found that, for the fifth year in a row, the UK’s skills shortage had worsened. It said that this was partly because many UK university degrees don’t give students the technical or vocational skills that employers actually want, and that as a result, over half of UK graduates are in non-graduate roles. To put it bluntly, there’s a chance we might have too many people getting degrees that aren’t actually that useful, and not enough leaving with the potential to enhance British businesses. But for pupils to pursue a technical or vocational route after leaving secondary education, we need a school system that encourages this route in the first place.

What can be done? A common response whenever this debate comes up is ‘why can’t we be more like Germany?’ Germany has traditionally streamed pupils at a young age between a Gymnasium (for academic students), Realschule (for intermediary students), or Hauptschule (for the less academic), and has a world-renowned high-skilled manufacturing industry. But Germany has moved away from such severe streaming. And less than half (43%) of our secondary school leaders would split the curriculum into academic and vocational/technical streams.

Solving a problem, which is in part about a cultural prejudice in favour of the 'academic', isn’t easy. But making alterations to the current performance measures and accountability system could have a significant impact. A change to Progress 8, for example, to allow more vocational qualifications to be counted in place of humanities or foreign languages, with the crucial caveat that these must be of high quality, would send a strong message. And is there scope for a technical baccalaureate, with the arts and humanities options replaced by vocational qualifications? If we are serious about parity of esteem then we must reflect it in performance measures and the accountability system.

Economists have warned that the skills gap is costing the economy up to £10bn every year. A country’s education system provides the most important aspect of its economy: the workforce. While an education for education’s sake is a noble aim, we should be mindful of the fact that school leavers also need to be employable, with enough of them having technical and vocational skills. And if school leaders tell us that the current system doesn’t encourage pupils with a natural aptitude for these skills, we should pause and listen.

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