Technical education failings: the view from Whitehall

Posted on 10 Sep 2019 by The Manufacturer

While employers must share some of the responsibility for problems with technical training, we have laid much of the blame at the door of government.

Jon Yates was until recently a special adviser at the Department for Education (DfE). Here he explains why technical education receives so little attention from Whitehall.

The education debate in the UK focuses far too much on schools and not enough on colleges, which is a problem as the top priority by far should be to fix the UK’s constant under-performance at technical education.

CROP - Whitehall Downing Street in London - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Despite all the claims to the contrary, our education system is good at academic teaching but we have been rubbish at technical education for  more than 70 years.

Why? Fundamentally, because people with influence (politicians, journalists, business leaders) don’t think about it.

Why not?

Reason 1

Because hardly any influential people did it. They therefore think most other people did A Levels and went to university like them.

Care to guess what percentage of young people actually do A Levels? Less than 50%.

Reason 2

Because the public don’t talk about it. Why? Because everyone’s children go to school but only some do technical education.

At DfE we received thousands of letters about school funding, hardly any about college funding, which is crazy as we fund schools about the same as other rich countries but we fund colleges well below them.

No one outside the Department ever made this point to me. Out of work I’d get lobbied by friends about school funding. But never about college funding.

This disinterest means that when the government decides (again) to ‘fix’ technical education, no one pays any attention. People would say that the former Education Secretary Damian Hinds wasn’t doing much radical reform, when he was in fact, with T Levels, making the biggest reform of technical qualifications for a decade.

This lack of interest means that after a year or so – when reform gets hard – the government simply gives in. And nothing changes. Bad news for the 50% not doing A Levels, but there will no marches, petitions. Nothing.

Reason 3

Because the public secretly think that technical education is for stupid, not very capable students. Worse, they think it is for disadvantaged, stupid, not very capable students (as though all disadvantaged students are stupid and incapable.)

Therefore, they think it needs to be easy. The result? A load of ‘technical’ qualifications that don’t actually train young people to do a skilled job, which makes them pointless.

But when you suggest changing this, in comes the government’s mandatory equality assessment process.

Minister: “I would like I get rid of this poor quality product and replace it with a better one.”

Equality assessment: “Hang on a moment, don’t do that – lots of people with protected characteristics use that product.”

In other words when you try and create technical qualifications that actually make you employable (which is the whole point of a technical qualification) the system steps in to prevent it!

Not equal? Get over it

The final madness is trying to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ between technical and academic career routes. It is totally pointless and impossible.

Lots of countries have great technical education, but none of them have parity of esteem, including Germany.

I once asked some German colleagues what the big problem with their education system was: “Today, everyone wants to go to university. There is no parity of esteem.”

Same in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Singapore. Everywhere.

The academic route will always lead to certain high status – from judge, teacher, civil servant, doctor. So when we create a technical route to a middle class job, we pretend it’s an academic route!

Try telling your doctor friends that they took a vocational route. (They did.)

Academic courses will always have the halo of higher esteem. That’s life. Forget about it.

Let’s focus on quality, not esteem. By quality I mean: will the course get you a skilled job? If it will, enough esteem will follow. Today, too often, it doesn’t.

Jon Yates is a former special adviser on policy to the Secretary of State for Education

This is part of a series of articles about the skills crisis facing the UK manufacturing sector.

The series examines some of the serious problems affecting skills and training – and some of the positive initiatives aimed at producing a manufacturing workforce fit for the future. 


*All images courtesy of Depositphotos