Technical education: Parity, parity, parity

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

The government’s new plan to fill the technical skills gap facing the UK will have to overcome a number of hurdles if it is to succeed, says Deborah Lawson

I believe that there should be parity between academic education and vocational education that is designed to meet students’ and future employers’ needs, rather than focusing on a narrow range of academic subjects.

The recently published government Green Paper, Building our Industrial Strategy, recognises the technical skills shortage facing this country – a shortage to be addressed in part through the education system for the survival of a post-Brexit Britain. Addressing this objective will, like many others, require government, employers and the education profession to work together.

Of course, the ability not only to listen but also hear and understand perspective and context is, sadly, something of a work in progress for governments with set political agendas, which is a source of constant frustration for the education profession.

New technical pathways proposed last year, following recommendations from the Sainsbury Review, aim to address the failure of the current system to meet the challenge of the fast pace of technological advances and the changing needs of employers and the economy.

Nevertheless, the proposals re-open the long-running debate over the value of vocational education and its relationship to academic education, not least given the over-reliance of the accountability system on academic achievement and progress.

The CBI is among the many organisations that have previously called for the false choice between academic achievement and vocational skills to be addressed.

Indeed, there is something of a false dichotomy between academic and vocational education, as many academic subjects come to life when applied to occupational specialisms such as biology, medicine and engineering. Some subjects are both academic and vocational – for example, music, art, design and technology, and computing.

It is not only students who have adopted this value system for educational achievement. Their parents, it seems from a recently published study, place higher value on academic education than vocational education.

It is interesting to note the terminology in the government’s industrial strategy, where “technical education” appears to replace the term “vocational education”. Will students and parents be any more inclined towards a “technical” education route?

While academic and vocational qualifications are reported separately in performance tables, the likelihood of redressing the balance remains slim, not least when the industrial strategy proposes that the new system of technical education is to benefit the half of young people who do not go to university.

This implies a lack of choice for young people and, in the context of the possible reintroduction of selection, not only appears to reduce choice, but consigns young people to a particular route from age 11.

The need for sound basic skills is not disputed. The provision and delivery of technical education will, as with academic education, be reliant on high-quality teaching. Tagging it on to an education system which is already under pressure, not least because of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis and inadequate funding, does not guarantee success.

There are many hurdles for policy-makers to overcome before technical education will achieve the aspiration of government. It must be valued equally with academic achievement by pupils, parents and employers.

We welcome collaboration with all stakeholders to develop policy to secure easier, effective implementation of the education aspects of this policy.


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