Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
Today is Budget day – and Philip Hammond is expected to announce £500 million in new funding for technical education, and will confirm a one-off payment of £320 million for 140 new free schools. The decision to focus so much of this Budget on education is a hugely welcome one, but unless the Government can change our attitudes towards vocational training and apprenticeships, the investment to announced today will not achieve its objectives.
Ten years ago, I started a charity called twentytwenty, with the simple aim of getting more disadvantaged young people into good jobs. It wasn’t rocket science. Alongside accredited qualifications in Maths and English, we ran non-accredited qualifications in employability and personal development. We also had key pastoral care, and kids got involved in different in-house and community projects where they applied what they had learnt in class, and gained vital life skills to help them succeed in the workplace.
Time and again I found myself asking why we, a charity for school-leavers, were in existence at all. Why were we doing this stuff? How are our schools churning out so many kids with no skills or qualifications to help them succeed in the workplace? And we are doing it on an industrial scale. In 2016, 37 per cent of students did not meet the required standard of an A* – C grade in English and Maths. Given that this is the most basic of all education measurements, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that school is proving near useless for more than a third of our kids. Something has to change.
It is to Ministers’ great credit that they have realised this. Announcements on free schools and selection will feature in the Budget, both of which the CSJ has campaigned for. Our view is not driven by ideology, but by the recognition that schools are dramatically failing our poorest children, and any innovation that could change this must be considered. Of the top 500 comprehensive schools in the country, just 15 per cent have a demographic that matches their local catchment area: poor kids are underrepresented in the other 85 per cent of these top schools. This cannot go on. We must leave no stone unturned.
But the Budget will also include the announcement of £500 million in funding for technical education provision for students aged 16-19. Improving the availability of technical education is something the Centre for Social Justice has also long campaigned for.
Talking to our third-sector alliance members and employers around the country, we have found that not only are businesses happy to take on school leavers without university degrees, but that students can often react better outside of the more formal classroom environment. Much has been made of how Price Waterhouse Coopers have quadrupled the number of non-graduate school leavers added onto their payroll each year, but this is a trend across many sectors and businesses, including Barclays Bank, BAE systems and National Grid.
It is also worth noting that the Government’s renewed commitment to creating three million apprenticeships by 2020 is another step in the right direction. Apprenticeships are increasingly described as giving young people all the education but without any of the debt. Many apprentices talk of the benefits of both earning and learning on the job. The added security of a job offer on completion is also a major motivating factor. Apprenticeships were hugely successful at building a high-skilled workforce and strong diversified economy in Germany: they can do the same in the UK.
But while these are all steps in the right direction, we do not think they go far enough. There is a saying in the business world that culture eats strategy for breakfast. What the Government is outlining is a strategy to increase technical education. But it also needs a plan to change the culture of education in the UK.
This is not the first Government to announce a raft of initiatives aimed at increasing technical education. From NVQs to University Technical Colleges, there have been repeated attempts to boost different kinds of education, but all seem to fall by the wayside. And they will continue to do so until the educational culture in this country grants a technical course equal esteem to an academic one.
That needs to start a long way before the age of 16 if these new qualifications are to become more than car parks for those that don’t cut the academic mustard. If this change is really to take root, it will demand buy-in from schools, parents and government years before children reach 16.
This does not mean that eleven year olds should have to choose an unalterable path of technical education from their first day of secondary school. But they absolutely should know that it’s a good option from a very early stage.
It does not mean that parents should abandon university aspirations for their children. But they should ask themselves whether it is genuinely the right path for every child.
Nor does it mean that the Government should water down the academic curriculum. But it does mean that Ministers will need to introduce standards and measurement beyond the purely academic to show a genuine commitment to other forms of education.
In some recent education research conducted by the CSJ, one interviewee despairingly told us that vocational education was a pipe dream until the parents of Etonians were asking teachers about which apprenticeships their children should consider. But this pipe dream should now be the Government’s true ambition.