Lord Sainsbury addresses AoC conference

16 November 2016 Michelle Rea

On Tuesday 15 November, Lord Sainsbury addressed the Association of Colleges' (AoC) conference, where he set out the main findings of the Independent Report on Technical Education.

Lord Sainsbury addresses AoC conference

Prior to his keynote address, Lord Sainsbury visited St James College, part of BMET, where he explored the college’s robotics, CADCAM and hydraulics workshops, witnessing welding, machining and computer-programming techniques by apprentices and students.

At the AoC conference, Lord Sainsbury also visited the Technicians Make it Happen stand, showcasing the campaign's portrait exhibition. 

You can read a full transcript of Lord Sainsbury's AoC address below:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  I am delighted to be here today for my first Association of Colleges Conference because it gives me an opportunity to say why I think my report to the Government is different from its many predecessors and why it has a better chance of success.

I feel I need to make this point because no area of public life has suffered so much from poor government policy-making, constant change and under-funding as technical education.  The first report which said that our technical education was not as good as that of Germany was in 1870, and since that time there have been endless attempts to improve it.

I started my life in business in the Personnel Department of the family firm, and so I have followed this unhappy saga over the last fifty years, starting with Industrial Training Boards.  Over that time every aspect of our technical education system has been changed multiple times.  To illustrate the rate of ill-thought out change, in the last 35 years alone, there have been 28 major Acts of Parliament relating to vocational education and skills training in the UK.

So the first question I want to address this afternoon is why should you treat my report, and the Government’s acceptance of it, as an important and potentially valuable reform of our system of technical education as opposed to another ill-thought out change which will lead to a lot of extra work and achieve nothing.  And what I want to suggest is that my report has a better chance of success because we began by looking at what are the main features of good technical education systems in other countries, from which we could learn.

If one looks at other countries, it quickly becomes clear that if one is going to have a good system of technical education one needs to have three things.  First of all one needs to have a national system of qualifications which is well understood and works in the marketplace.  A technical education system will not work well if people don’t know what qualification is required to do what job, and if when a student has acquired a qualification, and they go to an employer with it, the employer does not give them priority over someone who hasn’t got the qualification.

The other two requirements for a good system of technical qualification are an effective system of funding students while they are learning, and well-funded facilities and teachers to provide the education and training.

We, of course, have none of these three requirements.  If, for example, we take our national system of qualifications, individuals and employers must navigate a confusing morass of qualifications: over 22,000 certificates from 160 different awarding organisation are currently on offer.

Many of these qualifications hold little value in the eyes of individuals and are not understood or sought by employers, but too many people do not realise this until it is too late.  As some commentators have joked about this chaotic and dysfunctional landscape of post-compulsory education and training provision, if you are not confused by it, then you have not understood it.

As I am sure you also know, this failure of our technical education system is damaging both socially and economically.  Survey after survey confirms we are not training the highly-skilled technician workforce that we need.  Last year a CBI survey found that 46% of employers, across all sectors, reported suffering or expecting soon to suffer a shortage of technicians.  And this is at a time when over 400,000 16-24 year olds are unemployed.  It is hard to believe that none of these young people have the ability and motivation to train as technicians if given good opportunities to do so, and the shortage of technicians must be seen as a major failure of the system of technical education which successive governments have imposed on the sector.

So what do we propose to do to improve this unhappy situation?  I am not going to go through all the recommendations of our report today.  I encourage you to read it.  But I will describe a few key points.

Alongside the well understood academic option of A-levels and Applied General qualifications, we are recommending that a new set of 15 technical education routes should be introduced.  These routes – for example ‘Construction’, ‘Engineering & Manufacturing’, or ‘Catering and Hospitality’ – will encompass apprenticeships and college-based training, with both being based upon a common framework of standards.  For 16-18 year olds studying full-time in a college, each route will typically begin with a two-year study programme.

Each programme will start with a common core of knowledge and skills, after which individuals will specialise towards an occupation or cluster of aligned occupations.  So, for example, in the Construction route, after a common core an individual might choose to specialise as an electrician or carpenter.

For each of these specialisations there will be just one publicly-funded ‘Tech Level’ qualification available.  The content of these Tech levels will cover the knowledge and skills which industry experts have identified as being essential for the relevant occupations. The clear design purpose of each Tech Level will be to prepare for entry to skilled employment, either directly or after a period of further education and training.

By simplifying the system significantly and ensuring qualifications meet the needs of employers we can finally achieve something all other successful countries have:  a well-understood national system of qualifications that works in the labour market.  As I said earlier, young people and adults will only work hard to get a qualification, and value it highly when they get it, if employers when recruiting give priority to individuals who possess it.  It is only this labour market currency that gives technical courses the prestige they possess in other high-performing countries.  Any talk of governments being able to endow technical education with prestige – or parity of esteem with academic options – without first ensuring its genuine currency with employers is nonsense.

As always in this debate, there are some who say that asking a 16-year-old to choose between an academic and a technical option will create a two-tier system. This is not the case. Young people will be able to make an informed choice between two high-quality options.  Clearly career guidance is vital here – and the government needs to set out how it is going to ensure that all young people understand the choices open to them.  And it will of course be important for individuals to be able to switch between options if they change their mind, via bridging provision if necessary.

The clear organising framework we are proposing will cover all occupations where there is a substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills.   I cannot stress this point strongly enough.  Technical education is not a catch-all term for everything that isn’t GCSEs, A-levels and degrees.  To be described as technical education, a programme must focus on progression into skilled employment and require the acquisition of both a substantial body of technical knowledge and a set of practical skills valued by industry.  So, falling outside of technical education are many skilled occupations, such as retail assistant, which do not require a significant amount of technical knowledge.  This is not for one moment to suggest that these jobs are not important in the labour market – they offer large numbers of demanding jobs – simply that to perform well in these occupations does not require a substantial technical training such as that provided by a two-year college course. Instead, shorter, job-specific training while in employment is more appropriate.

By focusing technical education in this way, there will inevitably be some young people who are not ready to access either the 15 routes or the academic option at the age of 16.  Those with low prior attainment will need additional support.  This group of young people should be offered an additional ‘transition year’ to help them prepare for further study or employment, and this transition year should be flexible and tailored to a student’s prior attainment and aspirations.  

I would also like to take this opportunity to clarify something that was implicit in our thinking around the transition year but which we perhaps did not make explicit enough in our final report.  Our intention is that the transition year is an additional year, and government funding must recognise this.  So, a student who follows a transition year should be fully-funded to undertake both the transition year and a further two-year programme in either the technical or academic tracks.

I’d like to spend the remaining time I have discussing the impact of these reforms on the college sector.

Any reforms to the technical education system, especially those as significant as the ones we are proposing, will inevitably cause upheaval for colleges.  Some people will say that the last thing the sector needs is more reform, and I do understand this view.  But the problems with our current system are simply too pressing for us not to act. 

I was delighted with the response our report received from the FE sector, and especially from bodies like the AoC.  I know it is all too easy for me to stand here and tell you that this is all about ‘opportunities’ rather than ‘challenges’.  But I genuinely think these reforms present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the FE sector.

In short, it is an opportunity for the sector to assert its ownership of something it was originally created for:  technical education.  Equipping individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to enter or progress in skilled employment.  I feel that, too often in recent decades, government policies have undermined this core purpose and mission of FE, much to the detriment of the sector’s image and self-confidence. 

Further Education is the only sector with the expertise to deliver world-class technical education and there is no more vital area of public endeavour.  This country faces huge challenges to meet the skills needs of a modern advanced industrial economy, and it is only a strong, appropriately-resourced FE sector which can deliver the technical education we desperately need.

Finally, of course, government must play its part. This is not all about money, but proper funding is vital if we are to deliver on our aim of having a world-class technical education system.  I mentioned earlier that those following a transition year must be fully-funded to complete a further two years of study if they choose to.  Equally, delivering substantial work placements will cost money that is not already in the system.  But beyond these two specific additional costs which government must fund, I urge the Government to look more broadly at the actual cost of post-16 technical education and set funding levels accordingly. 

It is said in financial circles that when the stock market is soaring upwards and one hears the phrase ‘This time it is different’, one should be very worried and should turn all one’s assets into cash and head for the hills.

I hope, however, that I have persuaded you this afternoon that my report is genuinely different from its many predecessors, and that it could, if implemented effectively, give our young people the opportunity to benefit for the first time from a world-class system of technical education.  It is, I believe, a serious attempt to reverse the century-long neglect of technical education in this country, and I hope, therefore, that you will give it your enthusiastic support.

Lord Sainsbury addresses AoC conference