A new look at skills training

Three years ago, the UK government launched its industrial strategy with ‘new look’ apprenticeships. The Skills minister, Robert Halfon, announced an extra £170m funding for Institutes of Technology, which involved the upgrading of Further Education (FE) colleges in the North East, like New College Durham.

While some high-tech sectors of the regional economy have been identified, the government has used its industrial policy to unveil the Post-16 Skills plan, based on the 2016 Sainsbury Review. The plan set out 15 new routes into high skilled employment to allow those young people who don’t want to go to university to achieve a technical qualification from level 3 (T-levels) to Foundation degree level 5. Of course, this appears to be an attractive opportunity for teachers who work in the region’s 16 under-funded FE colleges. Yet as the educationalist Martin Allen points out, it remains unclear whether the government’s strategy will help job opportunities for the 50 per cent who don’t go to university at 18 or 19.

Nor is it a new idea. The former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Michael Heseltine, outlined a similar state interventionist strategy policy back in 1984 under Mrs Thatcher, which came to nothing. Twenty years later New Labour government commissioned the Tomlinson Review which called for the introduction of specialist diplomas for the 14 to 19-year-old age cohort. Back then there had been concerns about retaining the GCE A-level, long seen as the ‘gold standard’ of British schooling. Vocational education enjoyed a low status. 

Tomlinson’s main proposal was to replace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications with a single diploma over a 10-year period. The diploma would have operated at four levels: entry (pre-GCSE), foundation (GCSE up to D grade), intermediate (GCSE at A-C) and A-level. Students would have been able to progress at their own pace in mixed-ability classes. A-level learners would have taken more challenging tasks to get higher marks. The diploma, backed by many policy makers, would have been made up of ‘modules’ (short courses) from the existing a-level and GCSE modules. Students would have opted for one of the 20 pre-designed specialist diplomas. As Tomlinson argued, this would have strengthened vocational qualifications as the so-called ‘academic’ subjects could have been studied alongside the more ‘vocational’ ones.

All learners from 14 on would have studied ‘functional skills’ – numeracy, communication and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and done an extended written project alongside work experience. By 2005 Tony Blair shelved the report to avoid upsetting ‘middle England’ who were wedded to the academic A-level. This was a missed opportunity. With the election of the coalition government Michael Gove in his first week as Education Secretary axed the idea of 14-19 specialist diplomas.

By 2012, the Government commissioned the Wolf Report, and subsequently released its findings about the state of post-16 vocational education in the UK. Its conclusions were damning. Too many youngsters were doing low level vocational qualifications in colleges with little value for their job prospects. Apprenticeships were too short and bore no resemblance to the old-style five-year apprenticeship which had dominated post-war British industry, commerce, and public services. In short, the system was in a mess. It needed urgent surgery.


Today 25 per cent of young people aged 16 to 19 follow A-levels. But three-quarters are either on ‘quality’ BTEC programmes, ailing apprenticeships, or on low level ‘mickey mouse’ training schemes. A minority in the region are able to combine A-levels with BTEC National level 3 certificates in job related areas such as business, technology, or social and health care.

Both the CBI and TUC have long argued that the North of England has fallen behind other parts of the UK and other countries in the level of ‘intermediate’ skills held by the labour force. The Durham university educationalist Frank Coffield and others continue to see the German system of technical education and apprenticeships as the way forward.

Yet it’s increasingly recognised by some forward-thinking public policy analysts that many skilled and ‘technician’ level jobs across the economy are vanishing. This is due to further automation and digitisation. Where these jobs do continue to exist, they tend to filled by university graduates who find themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’. As the writers Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen infer, it remains unclear whether ‘vocational alternatives’ are really required: or whether young adults should be encouraged to develop more ‘generic’ skills to enable them to move across different economic sectors and to be able to work in different types of career during their working lives.

With the advent of robots, the decline of blue-collar and white-blouse work, and potential mass unemployment (post-Covid-19), it may well be the case that there won’t be enough highly skilled jobs to go around for those who are qualified. It may well be that ‘deskilled’ work at the bottom end of the service sector and precarious self-employment will continue. In other words, it’s possible that growing inequalities, rather than lack of skills, will be the main problem in the UK jobs market. Governments may be forced to explore alternative strategies such as the Universal Basic Income Guarantee trialled in Finland and the Netherlands, and job-sharing to address these challenges.

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