The LEI is pleased to see several key policy initiatives on skills and education feature prominently in the King’s Speech. Yet the proposals for the next Parliament raise some serious questions about the Government’s intended aims and messaging on the balance between academic and technical education routes.
Secondary education has been subject to a number of significant reforms under recent Governments, and it is vital that future changes in policy and guidance deliver consistency and continuity for the education providers who will be expected to implement them. We support the rationale of achieving greater parity between academic and technical learning, but we are concerned that the introduction of the Advanced British Standard will sacrifice the innovation of the T-level system without resolving its problems.
This includes addressing the ABS’s balance of classroom versus on-site teaching, its limited brand recognition among employers relative to BTECs and other vocational qualifications, and emergent concerns that the majority of T-level students still typically go onto higher education rather than the intended route of vocational employment. The ABS also limits the integration of technical and academic qualifications to the upper secondary education level, when this parity is urgently needed all the way through the learning system—both pre-16 and post-19.
The Government is also undermining the aim of achieving this parity by presenting “high quality apprenticeships” as a like-for-like replacement for “poor quality university degrees”. Certainly, it is key that employability outcomes factor into the careers advice and guidance that is made available to students in an accessible and transparent way when they are choosing their post-16 learning trajectories. But there is a danger that the narrative of “poor quality” becomes a reductive tool to favour a “quick turnover”, transactional logic in course development. This risks sacrificing longer-term skills and knowledge cultivation (especially in the arts, creative sector, humanities, and social sciences), on which a deeper overhaul of the UK’s economic and social fundamentals depends.
Simply reallocating certain student groups or subject areas from degrees to apprenticeships, and from Higher to Further Education (especially without an appropriate upscaling in investment), will not solve the UK’s productivity puzzle if this is divorced from a broader conversation about how the UK meets its sectoral skills needs. This requires a national and regional industrial strategy that balances the UK’s existing strengths with supporting both future growth industries and strategic sectors that may be exhibiting long-term stagnation. Only once this strategy is in place can a meaningful reevaluation of the UK’s current roster of degree and apprenticeship courses take place.
Finally, the LEI welcomes the Government’s commitment to deliver a long-term NHS workforce plan to meet the UK’s training needs for doctors and nurses. But more detail is needed to flesh out the proposed introduction of a vocational route for medical and healthcare professionals, given the large amount of funding and time investment required to give learners the specialist skills they take on these roles. There is a strong case that training in these professions needs to be more closely aligned with the existing framework of professional development, building on the existing structures of career progression, and current models of how to combine theoretical and practical learning.
This requires a deeper conversation about how skills in health and social care can be delivered in a lifelong training format. The LEI has developed a model of ‘step-on, step-off’ Lifelong Learning Pathways for how sectoral skills development at each education level can more closely integrate learners’ training and careers trajectories. These require targeted support and investment for strategic industries such as agri-food, energy, and infrastructure manufacturing—but should also be strongly considered for key public sector jobs like health and social care.
Overall, the measures announced in the King’s Speech represent a modest advance on the gains achieved in skills and education policy through recent landmark pieces of legislation and policy development. But without a more sustained “whole-system” approach that takes into account how each level of education builds into an overarching learning trajectory for different sectors and subject areas, these measures risk degenerating into superficial gimmicks that do not offer the major reforms the UK education system needs.