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Parity of esteem not false equivalence

08 July 2016

There is much detail in both the report by Lord Sainsbury’s panel and the Skills Plan that will no doubt excite interest: what’s in each of the 15 routes, how will we move to have one qualification and awarding body in each of them, what happens to qualifications like BTecs and how will the panels overseeing the routes be constituted? These are all important questions for the future but they risk overlooking the most important facet of the Sainsbury Panel’s work – that technical education is different. As an aside, I would have preferred technical and professional in line with the OECD’s definition. Using technical alone risks contorting the word to include occupations that are not easily seen as technical, but I digress. Recognising this difference is at the core of the report and Skills Plan. For too long policymakers have sought parity of esteem for vocational qualifications by making them more like academic. To do this is to seek false equivalence which will never deliver. As the Sainsbury Panel recognises, academic and academic studies have different roots (as opposed to routes). They also require different modes of assessment and teaching. Whilst there will be academic content in technical education, the purpose it serves is different; it serves the practical and builds upon experience. While academic study cannot be devoid of practical experience, it is not at its core. The attributes of teaching in technical education are similarly different. The Sainsbury report builds upon the work of Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL) which identified that such teaching and learning needs to be led by practitioners who are expert in their trades or professions and are teachers, with industry standard facilities and with a close and continuous dialogue with industry, enabling a ‘clear sight to work’ for students. These are attributes that are at the core of the mission of further education colleges and, properly implemented and funded, the Skills Plan offers the prospect of colleges having a distinctive cornerstone product to offer to employers and students. If we are realise this opportunity there are, of course, many challenges to be surmounted. One of them could be that bureaucratic complexity may replace market madness around qualifications. Whilst a tightly controlled system might be achievable at Levels 2 and 3, at higher levels there is a need for greater specialisation and more direct interaction between colleges and employers. That difference is recognised in the Skills Plan with the potential for colleges licensed by the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education to work with employers to make their own awards in sectors in which they have recognised expertise. This accords with our earlier proposals for a Technical and Education Accreditation Council. We also need to think through the place of general applied qualifications (BTecs and the like) and those occupations that don’t seem easily to fit within the routes. Nor should we underestimate the task of securing meaningful work placements for students, rather than generic work experience. Sainsbury accepts that these placements should attract extra funding; the acceptance that some students will also need a funded transition year to access technical education is also very welcome and offers the prospect of redressing the iniquitous reduction in funding by 17.5% for young people at age 18. (Albeit this acknowledgment is predictably hedged in the Skills Plan.) No doubt there will be a range of objections to the Sainsbury Report and the Skills Plan; most likely and understandably from points of vested interest and in relation to detail. Taken as a whole it offers the prospect of an English ‘dual system’ and provides colleges with a distinctive cornerstone product that plays to their undoubted and considerable strengths. Martin Doel is the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges