Education secretary Justine Greening’s confirmation last month of funding to support high quality work placements has again focused college talk on the new T-levels (now delayed till 2020) and the Sainsbury post-16 reforms. It’s welcome but what’s missing from the debate is the apparent lack of any coherent thought for level 2 vocational (GCSE equivalent) qualifications.
Policy-makers are focused on level 3 T-levels (A-level equivalent). They say those young people not ready for level 3 will be allowed a transition year which seems to be their last chance to get up to scratch. I don't know what's supposed to happen to them if they don’t.
In fact, I think the coverage of level 2 provision has been quite unfair. The Wolf review of the FE sector back in 2011 stated that a quarter to a third (300,000 - 400,000) of 16- to 19-year-olds were on courses ‘of little value’ that don’t lead to higher education or good jobs.
Quick-fix year no help to non-academic students
The official view seems to be that people who do things properly get their GCSEs at 16, spend two years on A-levels and then go to university; and that the vocational route should also have that kind of clarity. But reformers ignore the fact you are dealing with two completely different populations – academic and non-academic. Those who have not got good GCSEs by 16 have either been let down at school or have lower academic ability in many cases. What they achieve in employment depends as much on their character as the qualifications they get.
It seems to be assumed that anyone initially failing at level 2 just needs a quick fix. Give them extra time to get decent level 2 qualifications and then they can start level 3s. But what if they don’t do well - they will still need a qualification to get them a good level 2 job in say hairdressing, plastering or brick-laying – skilled trades that we all need.
Colleges must fight politicians’ built-in snobbery
It’s recognised that academic students can take maths GCSE, maths A-level and then improve their knowledge and skill in the subject at degree level in a kind of vertical academic progression. But policy makers should equally acknowledge that more practically-minded, less academic students can become better tradespeople by doing, say, more complicated plastering work; or you might do a level 2 in, say, in panel beating and then logically progress to another level 2 in some aspect of vehicle mechanics. It’s just a lateral rather than vertical movement
Colleges have to fight the built-in snobbery of politicians who constantly denigrate non-academic level 2 courses. We have to make it plain that vocational FE qualifications really do help those who take them – they are better off taking them than not..
How do we overcome this bias and think inclusively? If we look overseas, our politicians tend to get mesmerised by countries producing high-quality engineers through workplace apprenticeships in, say, Germany, Switzerland or Denmark. Yet they are constantly overlooking young people at home who become shop assistants, work in hospitality, care and many other valid occupations that just attract low status.
Employers could make better use of workers’ skills
Ironically, I think our colleges and awarding bodies have been really quite responsive – sadly the new policy reformers are ignoring this as colleges just don't seem fit their desired mould..The labour market should perhaps be equally responsive
The fact is that our employers don't always make the best use of their workers’ skills. Public policy should focus more on encouraging employers to have a high value-added approach to work rather than a low-cost approach. The strength of trade unions in, say, France and Germany encourages employers to pay staff well but expect them to produce – rather than pay low wages and get lower productivity as is often the case in the UK. French and German workers do tend to produce in four days what UK workers produce in five.
It’s one of the reforms we need for our industrial strategy rather than just relying on changing the exam/qualification system, which won't do anything as far as I can see.
Our level 2 system works and deserves recognition
Those implementing the Sainsbury vocational reforms need to recognise that what we have now is worthwhile and not rubbish to be swept away by a brilliant new system. There is some good stuff going on – take the construction industry which is actually quite satisfied with level 2 entry points for those starting bricklaying, plastering or carpentry; employers are not averse to level 3s, but level 2 qualifications and apprenticeships have served them well.
It's a pity we don't work through things more carefully before they are rolled out. The Institute for Government’a All Change report in March this year points to our need to learn from the past. Did you know, for instance, that since the 1980s the FE sector has seen 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities, and no FE organisation lasting more than a decade?
This cycle of churn must be broken, it says. We must ‘avoid further radical overhauls and pursue a more managed process of learning and adaptation’.
The FE sector should be allowed to focus on ‘creating and sustaining the apparatus for self-improvement, where the strengths of previous systems are understood and built upon and institutions are given time to perform.’ Amen to that.