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What lies beneath: the skills issue undermining inclusive growth

Vocational education is not valued as it should be in this country and, as a result, the UK is falling behind its European neighbours when it comes to nurturing the skills the economy needs. It’s time we addressed this critical skills gap.

12th Aug 2020
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Vocational worker
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We have a way of bombarding teenagers with advice about higher education. Recommendations about course selection are often based on academic aptitude and predicted ‘A’ level grades. UCAS applications, it follows, tend to be in the subject areas where young people have the best chances of excelling.

As a nation we need to be more adept at growing our own skills base at a rate that keeps pace with what the economy needs. 

A direct consequence of this convention is that it’s almost a given that youngsters will take the traditional academic path when it comes to their post-16 education. Vocational qualifications and their associated careers are, by default, inadvertently and unfortunately stigmatised from the outset.

The latest data, unsurprisingly, shows a significant decrease in the number of vocational qualifications being awarded. It plummeted from 7.8m at the end of 2014 to 5.7m by the end of 2019. Sectors such as construction, engineering and manufacturing technologies are seeing the biggest decline in certificates, according to the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual).  

A cultural issue

There are other approaches. A study by the Politeia thinktank in 2018 explored differences between education systems in England, France and Germany. It found that our near neighbours both have selective elements in education and set higher standards. Following the technological pathway is encouraged during school years and secondary age teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach, with vocational teachers expected to have relevant qualifications. We should consider taking a leaf out of their books – not only in designing curriculum content but, crucially, when recruiting teachers ‘truly gifted’ in teaching vocational subjects.

Culture and attitudes play a part, too. I know from my own experience working in the life science industry that the role of laboratory technician in Germany or Switzerland, for example, enjoys far more prestige than in the UK.  

As a nation we need to be more adept at growing our own skills base at a rate that keeps pace with what the economy needs. A 2018 report from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, found that 37% of workers have the skills to cope with more demanding duties, and that 12% lacked the skills needed to carry out their current job effectively. According to the Baker Dearing Trust, which oversees University Technical Colleges (UTC), this very much suggests a skills mismatch. We are producing highly trained people but not in the areas where industry desperately needs technical and vocational skills.

It is essential that we address the underlying issue here and encourage the next generation of undergraduates to explore their options when it comes to practical learning and champion the careers such courses can lead to.

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Shifting standards

Designed to help students learn in a more hands-on way about a specific job area, vocational qualifications lend themselves to industries spanning engineering, life sciences, accounting, construction and manufacturing, to name but a few.

They’ll often come in the form of BTECs, courses that combine practical learning with subject theory content. With more than 2,000 courses available across the country, there’s certainly no shortage of choice, but we need to massively shift attitudes if we are to ever increase uptake – although we may not get the chance.

The advent of the new T-level, due to start in September 2020, is putting pressure on the continued existence of BTECs with funding for a number of qualifications being withdrawn. Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of BTECs and T-levels, the ongoing debate and constant changes to qualifications for vocational training simply masks the fundamental issue about the value that is ascribed to this area of education. If academic qualifications were changed half as frequently as vocational ones, there would rightly be uproar. Universities and employers were finally starting to understand the value of BTECs only to be told that they are no longer considered to be ‘gold standard’.

A step in the right direction

Higher and degree apprenticeships have started to make some in-roads in changing perceptions around vocational training. A relatively new addition to our education system, they are programmes developed by employers, universities, and professional bodies working in partnership. They give students the chance to work in their industry of choice earning money, while also studying for a bachelor’s or master’s degree at the same time.

This, it would seem, is a step in the right direction. According to figures from the Department for Education, however, for the first quarter of this academic year, whilst the number of people taking the highest level of apprenticeship, equal to degree level study, increased 49.4% year-on-year and is nearly five times higher than in 2017/18, the number of new apprenticeships at all levels declined by 4.7% over the same period. Of far greater concern is the fact that the number of new apprenticeships among the under-19s – the critical demographic for a healthy vocational sector – decreased by 11.2% in 12 months.

Policy making in this area generally is, at best, ad hoc and seems to lack any appreciation of the fundamental driver for changing perceptions, namely getting people to ascribe true value to vocational training. Quality data holds the key to re-establishing the balance of vocational versus academic qualifications. The public at large need to understand the scale of the problem. Likewise, government and education leaders need to understand which sectors are suffering the biggest skills gaps and, importantly, consider why this is in terms of qualified job applicants.

Training programmes will need polishing and, essentially, students should be equipped with a full set of options – across traditional and non-traditional courses – when deciding on their post-16 educational path. Only then would we be able to fully change how we perceive vocational training and qualifications and ensure that one of the critical engines of our economy is valued as it should be.

Interested in this topic? Read A level playing field: why it’s time to rebrand vocational education.

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