Providing Technical Education

The UK has a well-documented shortage of STEM technicians to satisfy demand for both new and replacement roles. Technical education offers young people a clear route from school into rewarding technician occupations, and progression to higher education for those who wish to do so.

Student technicians working at touch screens
young male technician students working with lathe

We are working with FE institutions and other stakeholders to support the planning and delivery of high-quality technical education.

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Registered technician status has established clearly defined standards that may be used to recognise professional competence of new and existing technicians in science, engineering and technology – EngTech, RSciTech, and RITTech. Technical education offers young people a clear route from school into rewarding technician occupations. The knowledge and skills that high-quality technical education develops, enable individuals to succeed in their first job, and adapt to the shifting demands of the workplace throughout their careers.

We define technical education as STEM-related education and training from level 3 (equivalent to A-levels) to level 5 (HND/Foundation Degree qualifications). In England this education and training is predominantly delivered in the further education (FE) sector, including FE colleges, Group Training Associations, and independent training providers. In addition University Technical Colleges offer young people aged 14-19 the opportunity to focus their education on technical subjects.

We are working with FE institutions and other stakeholders to support the planning and delivery of high-quality technical education. In order to deliver high-quality technical education we suggest that FE colleges need to:

  1. continue to build their engagement with employers and other local partners as they plan a coherent and valued offer for technical education in their locality;
  2. have an appropriate infrastructure for delivery of these qualifications, both facilities and suitably trained teachers;
  3. have access to a straightforward funding system that provides sufficient resource for technical education; and
  4. be operating in a context where young people have comprehensive career information, advice and guidance that explores vocational career routes as well as academic opportunities. 

Current Projects

Local coherent planning of technical education

High-quality technical education requires a learning environment with industry-standard facilities and expert staff, and commonly includes specialist training that is only needed by relatively small numbers of individuals. This can present a challenge for FE providers in achieving viable group numbers for training provision. Addressing this challenge requires a coherent approach to planning of technical education in a local area, underpinned by good labour market intelligence from employers. We are supporting a small pilot project with local consortia (including Local Enterprise Partnerships and FE colleges) to look collectively at technical education in order to build sustainable capacity for responsive provision. The group will assess technical education facilities across their local area, pool labour market intelligence on current and future demand for technician skills, pinpoint areas of duplication and gaps in their current provision, and identify actions to address these. The report from the Manchester pilot group is available here

Research to look at the provision of engineering facilities across futher education colleges in England was undertaken with the Royal Academy of Engineering. The report, which identified the equipment needed by a college to deliver broad engineering education at Level 3, is available to read here

FE workforce numbers

A sufficient number of suitably qualified teachers is vital to the initial training and continued up-skilling of technicians. However, the most recent FE workforce information is not granular enough to measure the rich range of experience held by FE teachers in STEM subjects. This hampers the ability to take a strategic approach to planning support for initial teacher education and continuing professional development. Working with the Nuffield Foundation, Gatsby has commissioned a survey to profile the background and experience of STEM teachers in FE colleges. This research reported in July 2015 and the reports are available here

Gatsby hosted a joint seminar with The Education and Training Foundation to disseminate the findings from this research. The report of the seminar can be found here

Mentoring for STEM teachers in FE

While considerable research has explored the benefits of mentoring for teachers in schools, very little has looked at mentoring in FE. We supported the University of Brighton to examine existing mentor support for FE teachers offered in individual colleges, and the potential benefits and challenges for introducing an external mentoring support programme. An executive summary of the project report is available here. The full report may also be downloaded here.

Further work exploring mentoring systems in a range of non-educational organisations was published recently and is available to read here

Subject-specialist support for initial teacher education

For teaching of vocational STEM subjects a FE teacher would be expected to possess a relevant subject-based qualification, industrial experience, and a teaching qualification. However, college principals consistently report that recruiting STEM staff possessing this level of skills and experience is challenging. One criticism of teaching qualifications in FE is the weakness of subject-specialist training routes. There is a valuable strong tradition of ‘on-the-job’ training in FE teaching, with an expectation that teachers will develop subject-specialist teaching skills throughout their career as they work alongside experienced colleagues. However, the availability of such mentoring opportunities – both initially and during a teacher’s career – are highly variable. This presents inherent difficulties for FE teacher training in meeting subject-specific needs.

We commissioned Dr Ron Thompson to review the current landscape of initial teacher education for FE teachers to identify opportunities for strengthening subject-specialist training. in 2014/15, we supported the development of teacher CPD modules in several technical subject areas. With input from FE, HE initial teacher educators, and employers, these specialist modules helped equip FE teachers to design and deliver technical education that prepares young people for the technician workforce. The delivery model blended online and face-to-face tuition, supported by mentoring throughout the course. The second phase of this work is currently underway - using the vital information gathered during the pilot modules, we are supporting the University of Huddersfield and partner universities to embed subject-specific pedagogy within their initial teacher education (ITE) courses. The project, led by Professor Kevin Orr, will give ITE staff training and access to appropriate curriculum guidance and resources for training new science, engineering and technology teachers.  

Accredited access courses in science and health

Access courses are designed for those adults wishing to progress to higher education (HE) but who lack the required entry qualifications. Over 20,000 students in FE colleges are currently studying on access courses in subjects aligned to medicine or science. Upon successful completion these students typically move to HE courses in healthcare and science disciplines. We have worked with the Royal Society of Chemistry on a pilot scheme to adapt science access courses in FE colleges to meet the standards of RSciTech. The resulting course has a sufficiently strong focus on practical skills and project work for students on completion to be eligible for RSciTech status. Through a phased roll-out over the next three years accredited access courses in science and health will be made available nationwide.

University Technical Colleges

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are technical secondary schools for 14-18 year olds. They offer young people a broad curriculum that combines an academic education with technical and practical learning. UTCs teach one or more technical specialisms that meet the needs of STEM-related skills shortages in their region including engineering, product design, health sciences and computer science.

Each UTC is established and sponsored by its local university and a number of local employers who work together with other partners to agree the specialisms, which reflects the university’s area of excellence and local employment priorities. This gives students clear progression routes into further and higher education and local industry.

The design of each UTC is influenced by its chosen specialism, with workspace and modern equipment installed to reflect industrial practice. Individuals with recent enterprise experience in the specialism are recruited and trained to teach alongside staff from more traditional teaching backgrounds. Students learn in a very practical way, studying technical subjects alongside the underpinning subjects of English, mathematics, science and IT. To better prepare students for employment, UTCs adopt a longer school day – more reflective of working hours – and a longer school year. Students also benefit from experience of work and the opportunity to work on real-life projects which are set by employer partners.

The Baker Dearing Educational Trust was founded by Lord Baker and Lord Dearing to promote the concept of UTCs, and act as a central body providing advice and guidance to the UTC network. We believe UTCs have a strong role to play in meeting the UK’s demand for technical skills, and are providing core support to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust.