The UK government is launching a campaign to convince more people to choose technical qualifications over university degrees, with the education secretary describing vocational education as the answer to the country’s productivity crisis.
Gavin Williamson said he planned to put “employers at the centrepiece” of a new agenda for further education, and had an “old fashioned” view of learning as preparation for the workplace.
In an interview with the Financial Times, he said: “I have always taken the view there is something rather noble in education, in that it gives you the tools and skills to go out there and get yourself a job, so you can provide for yourself and your family, and buy the things that you want, whether it’s your home or a car, or any of the things we all aspire to.”
His department announced on Tuesday the introduction of new government accreditation for higher technical qualifications as part of a wider push to rebalance the UK’s post-secondary education system in favour of vocational training.
The announcement follows a speech last week in which Mr Williamson pledged to build a “world-class, German-style further education system” and dropped the government’s aim of sending half of young people to university.
Only one in ten UK adults holds a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification, according to the DfE, resulting in skills shortages that Mr Williamson said had acted as “real drag on the economy”.
“It has really had an impact on the challenges we face in raising productivity levels,” he said.
“At the core of it you’ve really had this fundamental weakness in the British economy, and in the education sector, of not driving a strong enough stream of people into the skill sets that we need in the higher technical levels.”
He hopes that the new accredited courses, which he said would be developed in partnership with business, will improve standards and be more relevant to employers.
“This is how we get out on the front foot,” Mr Williamson said. “It’s not just value to the student, it’s value to the employers as well.”
He added that the new qualifications would provide the skills needed but also provide clarity for students and businesses who were now faced with a “bewildering array” of possible vocational routes.
There are currently more than 4,000 higher technical qualifications in England, but 40 per cent have just five students or less studying for them, according to the DfE. Take-up of vocational education in the UK is among the lowest of OECD countries.
Mr Williamson said government-approved qualification routes, with an official “mark” guaranteeing employment-ready skills, would be available for digital courses from September 2022 and in construction and health and science from 2023.
The DfE will work with Ofsted, the schools inspector, and the Office for Students to ensure the quality of higher technical courses, which sit between A-levels and undergraduate degrees.
Further education leaders gave a cautious welcome to the announcement, but said they wanted more detail on the involvement of employers, which would be essential to the success of the scheme.
Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of the City and Guilds Group, which includes a leading accreditation body, said the sector had suffered from central government “meddling”, with years of new interventions creating unnecessary complications, and a sharp drop in funding starving it of resources.
Spending per student for 16-18 year-olds fell by 12 per cent between 2010-11 and 2018-19, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, and funding for adult education, excluding apprenticeships, has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 2003.
“We need real investment to bring this together in a coherent system,” Ms Donnelly said.
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