Technical education: More to do on funding and curriculum breadth

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite the government’s rhetoric on technical education, funding is still lagging far behind that of academic education.

Furthermore, the technical education curriculum in England is one of the narrowest in the developed world, while the courses themselves are much shorter than international norms.

An analysis published last week by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) concludes that the introduction of T levels in September will improve things, but that the government needs to go further if it is to match high-performing countries such as Germany – the country that education secretary Gavin Williamson has said he wants to overtake in the next 10 years.

And there is some way to go, according to the EPI study, which finds that upper secondary technical education across the UK is being funded at a rate that is 23 per cent less per student than academic routes.

It finds, too, that funding rates are lower than the OECD average. In 2016, the UK spent around £6,990 per student compared to the OECD average of £8,080.

The report points to countries such as Germany and The Netherlands where technical education is funded at substantially higher rates than academic routes.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently stumped up £400 million for 16 to 19 education. However, the EPI says that between 2010/11 and 2018/19, real-terms funding per-student in sixth forms and colleges fell by 16 per cent – the £400 million will “only reverse a quarter of these cuts”, it adds.

In the UK, technical courses are typically cheaper than those offered in leading OECD countries, with fewer more expensive courses, such as engineering. The report also finds that technical education courses in England are shorter and the curriculum narrower.

For example, in other countries such as Norway, Denmark, Austria and Germany, students taking vocational routes continue with maths, languages and other subjects. England is “almost unique” in requiring young people to specialise in a small number of subjects at age 16, with many being allowed to drop English and maths if they have achieved a Grade 4 to 9 at GCSE.

The report adds: “English technical upper secondary education is also of short duration by international standards; it is assumed to take two years to complete, while in high-performing countries it generally takes around three/four years, depending on the programme characteristics.”

The report says that the new T levels, which the government intends to place at the heart of 16 to 19 technical education in England alongside Apprenticeships, are a step in the right direction but they are still only two years in duration and will provide a narrower curriculum than elsewhere.

The first three T levels are being rolled out from September this year, with a further seven planned for September 2021. They will be the equivalent to three A levels and in September courses for the digital, construction and education/childcare sectors will be available.

T levels comprise a technical qualification with sector and occupation-specific study, an industry placement, and GCSE English and maths study if required. The government is also currently consulting on higher technical qualifications that would provide a progression route after T levels.

The report adds: ““While technical upper secondary students in other countries take general subjects including their local language, a foreign language, maths, social and natural sciences, or there are specific subjects to develop non-cognitive skills, this is not the case of England, and T levels will not address this beyond securing basic levels of literacy and numeracy.

“The fact that they will take two years to complete, rather than three or four as is the norm elsewhere, probably stands in the way of a further broadening of the curriculum.”

The EPI adds: “While there are positive developments, such as the introduction of T levels, including increased teaching hours and industry placements, England’s 16 to 19 curriculum remains an outlier among developed nations for its narrow breadth. The government should commission an independent review to consider whether these narrow upper secondary pathways are providing the right skills for young people.”

The report calls upon the government to review funding for technical pathways and to reconsider the curriculum breadth and the length of technical courses.

It also warns that take-up of Apprenticeships among 16 to 19-year-olds is low compared to other countries.

It states: “Half of students opt for a technical pathway in England, but just 16 per cent of these take up an Apprenticeship, compared to 27 per cent across the EU. The government should consider further redistribution of Apprenticeship Levy funds towards younger apprentices, and other incentives to encourage the hiring of younger workers.”

David Robinson, the report co-author and director of post-16 and skills at the EPI, added: “If it wishes to draw level with countries like Germany, the government must give further consideration to properly funding technical education, in order to sustain quality. We must also ask serious questions about the structure of our upper secondary programmes, which are uniquely narrow and short by international standards. The breadth of the curriculum and length of technical courses should be reviewed."

Commenting on the paper, Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 and colleges specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that while T levels give technical education a greater focus, only a minority of 16 to 19 students will take them.

He added: “We need to look again at our qualification system to place more value on technical education from an earlier age by giving it genuine parity of esteem with academic subjects.

“The EPI report’s conclusions are clear, and echo what ASCL has been calling for – that substantial levels of additional government funding is desperately needed if the country is serious about investing in the future of our young people.”


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