Damian Hinds is Education Secretary and MP for East Hampshire.
You know how it goes. A politician starts talking about technical education and the clichés start – for too long we haven’t taken technical skills seriously enough… we’ve prioritised academic education over technical education… the problem is that there is an in-built snobbery in our education system that says thinking with your brain is good, but working with your hands isn’t.
Well – clichés are often clichés for a reason.
As Education Secretary, my ambition is to provide a world class education for every child, whatever their route, whatever their background. Whilst our young people have an excellent and clear academic route to follow – A Levels and then university – our vocational, technical routes tell another story.
There is not a simple path for young people choosing technical study at 16.
We are unique as a country by providing a confusing landscape of over 12,000 courses to young people at Level 3 – the equivalent of A Levels – and below, with multiple qualifications in the same subject areas available.
If a 16 year old wants to study history, they know they can take a History A Level which is understood and trusted by parents, universities and employers. But if a student wants to study an engineering qualification after GCSEs there are over 300 different options to choose from – leaving them at a loss as to which ones will give them the best chance of getting the skills they need and employers often with little clue as to which qualifications they should be looking for.
So – as part of our ongoing improvements to technical education which have seen the reform of apprenticeships to put quality at their heart and the development of T Levels, as the rigorous technical equivalent to A Levels – today we are launching a review of those technical qualifications that are Level 3 or below, to simplify the landscape and improve quality of what’s on offer to young people.
There are going to be some tough decisions as we think carefully about what we take away from the system. But I think we’d all agree – better to see young people with a smaller number of high quality choices rather than a plethora of often mediocre ones.
This is the next step in a long and necessary road of improving technical and vocational education. It follows Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education in 2011 and Lord Sainsbury’s review of the quality of technical education in 2015. Both reviews had the question of quality at their heart and both have led to improvements in the system, including the development of new, tougher criteria for qualifications included in performance tables and the introduction of new gold standard T Levels from 2020.
We have already made great strides forward increasing the quality level of apprenticeships, with more of them at a higher level, longer and more intensive. T Levels are a major upgrade to the technical qualifications that will be available after GCSEs. They will give young people the opportunity to gain the skills they need to get a great job, go on to do a higher level apprenticeship or further study.
You can’t legislate for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes post-16. Quality has to come first. Get that right and esteem will follow. In order for technical education not simply to be something for “other people’s children”, it has to be something you want your child to do as well. That means it’s high quality and leads to a well-paid, rewarding skilled job.
The importance of getting technical education right does not just lie in making sure that every child, whatever their talent, has a high quality educational route – crucial though this is. The quality of skills is also vital for our productivity as a country. The productivity gap is the great unsolved issue of the last 50 years. We know that matching German productivity would mean significantly higher wages and allow government to spend tens of billions of pounds a year more on our public services – and skills underpins this.
I have previously spoken of the hourglass of skills in the country. At the top of the hourglass, we have a large number of well-educated people, often with degrees from good universities- they tend to be in the high skilled, high paid jobs.
But at the bottom of the hourglass, we have a large number of people who either never progressed beyond GCSEs or gained low level vocational qualifications. They are too often ending up in low skilled, low wage jobs.
If we’re ever going to close the productivity gap then we need more people getting into the top half of the hourglass, and ultimately we need to change the shape of the hourglass so it bulges out in the middle with more skilled jobs for people doing high quality training when they finish school.
To do this we need to make sure that the technical route in education is as clear and as high quality as the academic route. This goes beyond what happens at 16 and we are also looking at how to improve higher technical qualifications, Level 4 and 5, but it’s all connected and today’s consultation plays a part in that. A clear quality technical path to a skilled job. More young people gaining higher skills. A more productive economy.
In a decade’s time I want us to have a completely different perspective on technical education in this country. We should be able to look back on all the reforms we’ve made, and be able to say, yes, our young people now have the same – or ideally better – training opportunities than they do in Germany, or Holland, or Switzerland, or other leading systems.