Technical education – reformed for whose benefit?

by Stacey Dingwall

The expansion of grammar schools may not have made it into this year’s delayed and reduced Queen’s Speech but another education policy did – the government’s planned ‘major’ reform of technical education.

As Her Majesty set out, the government’s plan is to ensure that people “have the skills they need” for high-skilled, well-paid jobs, facilitated through “a major reform of technical education”.

A reformed system

The Chancellor detailed plans for a new ‘T levels’ system in March’s Budget, which is being created with the aim of equalising technical and higher education in order to improve the country’s productivity levels. The Budget announcement promised an increase of 50% in the number of hours students train, as well as £500m of funding per year to deliver the new system. The reforms will also simplify the system, reducing the currently available 13,000 qualifications to a mere 15.

The Budget announcement followed the April 2016 publication of the findings from Lord Sainsbury’s review of technical education. The review found “serious” problems with the existing system, noting that British productivity levels lag behind countries including Germany and France by up to 36 percentage points. It also highlighted that the country is forecast to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills by 2020.

The Sainsbury Review made a series of recommendations, including the introduction of a framework of 15 qualifications, which the government accepted in full (where possible within existing budget commitments) in its July 2016 Post-16 skills plan. The plan details how the government plans to deliver its reformed technical education system, by working closely with employers and providers, and ensuring that the system is an inclusive one, accessible no matter someone’s social background, disability, race or sexual identity.

Investing and cutting

Also included in the planned reforms is the construction of new ‘Institutes of Technology’, which are intended to “enable more young people to take advanced technical qualifications and become key institutions for the development of the skills required by local, national and regional industry”. At a time when schools and colleges are facing continued cuts and pressures on resources, this is one part of the reformed system that’s come in for criticism.

Speaking to The Guardian, Marcus Fagent from design and consultancy firm Arcadis stated that capital investment is essential to the new technical education system, in terms of space to teach the new curriculum. He also highlighted how addressing the issue of space for teaching has enabled countries like the Netherlands to deliver successful technical education provision.

The fact that our continental neighbours do it better with regards to technical and vocational education is something that keeps coming up. Even the new system has come in for criticism for its continued focus on leaving it so ‘late’ to try and promote technical education as a potential path for pupils. While Britain sticks with starting at 16, countries like Germany offer vocational routes to pupils from as young as 10.

Decentralisation and young people

This week, the Local Government Association will publish a new report that argues that previous reforms within the skills system have failed due to a lack of progress in the devolution of powers to the local level. Written by the Learning and Work Institute, the report will also recommend the creation of “one-stop” services covering apprenticeships, technical education reform, local adult skills planning, the successor to the European Social Fund and oversight of employment services.

In amongst all the arguments over reforms and provision, it’s telling and worrying that the voice of those who will be most affected by the new system is rarely heard – that of the young people trying to navigate a complex and ever-changing education system. With more reforms to GCSE grading also announced in the last week, they have every right to be anxious about navigating an education system that’s supposed to support them to deliver the productivity gains the country needs.

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Apprenticeships – inclusive and accessible to all?

AZUBI und Ausbildner

By Heather Cameron

The government is “committed to making apprenticeships inclusive and accessible to all”. But, unfortunately, this is not currently the case. Just 10.6% of the starting apprenticeships in England in 2014/15 came from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared to 14.6% of the general population. And while women are well represented overall, there are significant disparities across sectors.

In response to a recent Ask a Researcher enquiry, we looked into the topic of diversity in apprenticeships and, in particular, the barriers that face some groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

Occupational gender segregation

Occupational gender segregation in apprenticeships was found to be a particular issue. Research has shown that, despite women apprentices having outnumbered men since 2010, young women miss out on certain opportunities as a result of this issue. For example, women comprise 94% of childcare apprentices but under 4% of engineering apprentices. And these figures have hardly changed in the last decade.

According to recent research, occupational gender segregation contributes to women losing out at every level with apprenticeships:

  • Women tend to work in fewer sectors
  • Women receive lower pay than men
  • Women are less likely to receive training as part of their apprenticeship
  • Women are more likely to be out of work at the end of their apprenticeship

In terms of the barriers facing women specifically, a lack of awareness of the careers advice and information services available, or of the funding available for training; formal entry qualifications; and child care and other caring responsibilities have all been cited.

Under-representation

The other significant issue highlighted by the research is the under-representation of BAME groups. The overwhelming majority (88.5%) of apprenticeship starters in 2014/15 were White and the provisional figures for 2015/16 are similar at 88.1%. This compares to just 10.6% of apprenticeship starts from BAME groups in 2014/15, with provisional figures for 2015/16 down slightly at 10.4%.

Similarly to women, BAME apprentices are also under-represented in specific sectors. Fewer than 3% of apprentices in construction, land based industries, science, engineering and manufacturing, building services engineering, and hair and beauty came from a BAME background.

Barriers facing ethnic minorities include a lack of awareness around the benefits of apprenticeships and parental influence. A study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has therefore called for action to increase the awareness of apprenticeships among ethnic minority young people and their parents.

Progress

Despite the issues of occupational gender segregation and ethnic minority under-representation, it should be noted that progress has been made.

The most recent statistics on apprenticeships in England show that: there were 12% more apprenticeship starts in 2015 than in the previous year and that achievements increased by 1% over the same period; overall, between 2013/14 and 2014/15 the number of apprenticeship starts increased across all age groups except for people aged under 16 and those aged 18 to 24; the number of apprenticeship starts for learners with learning disabilities and/or difficulties was up by 12%; and although an overwhelming number of apprenticeship starters were White, the number of non-White apprenticeship starters increased by 17%.

Way forward

The government ambitiously aims to deliver 3 million quality apprenticeships by 2020, to reflect the widest spectrum of society. And it has pledged to increase the proportion of apprentices from black and minority ethnic backgrounds by 20% from 10% to 11.9%. However, no specific targets have been set for gender diversity.

The research suggests that formal entry criteria should be removed where not necessary to encourage better uptake of different apprenticeships by women, and awareness of apprenticeships should be increased with initiatives targeting ethnic minority young people and their parents. Other recommendations include introducing diversity targets within organisations, providing more part-time and flexible apprenticeships and providing better advice and support to apprentices at all stages.

Perhaps if such additional actions are taken, the government will move closer to its commitment of making apprenticeships truly inclusive and accessible to all.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in our previous blog on higher apprenticeships.

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Why do more girls than boys go on to higher education?

Metal signpost indicating directions of three world famous universities - Harvard / Cambridge / Oxford

by Stacey Dingwall

In February of this year, ministerial guidance was issued to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on doing more to widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. This was accompanied by the issuing of new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges which, for the first time, specified that they should be doing more to widen access among white men from economically disadvantaged groups.

The new guidance came after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the country’s higher education sector in an article for the Sunday Times in January. While David Cameron’s main criticism was of the lack of students from ethnic minority backgrounds being admitted to elite universities like Oxford, he also noted that “white British men from poor backgrounds are five times less likely to go into higher education than others”.

What does the evidence say?

The Prime Minister’s statement about the gender gap is backed up by two key sources. In their 2015 End of Cycle report, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that, while entry rates for both male and female students increased, female entry rates increased three times faster than those of males. At 35.4%, the admission rate for 18 year-old female students was 9.2 percentage points higher than male students, making them 35% (proportionally) more likely to attend university. This equates to 36,000 fewer young men than women entering higher education each year and is the widest gap yet recorded by UCAS – in 2007, woman were 27% more likely to attend university. Furthermore, the report notes that female students from the most disadvantaged areas were 51% more likely than their male peers to enter higher education in 2015. Also highlighted is that while female students across all ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than males, the gap is significantly smaller than that between white students: the next greatest gap is between male and female black students, at a ratio of 1.4. This gap has also narrowed since 2006.

In July of last year, the Sutton Trust’s Independent Commission on Fees published its final report. The Commission was set up in 2011 with the aim of analysing the effect of increased tuition fees on students. While the report found that the number of students applying to university had not been significantly impacted by the increase, it did find that certain groups had been adversely affected. These groups included male students from disadvantaged areas: the report suggested that they are 48% less likely to enter higher education than female students in the same circumstances. The Commission also found that this gap is widening rather than narrowing, indicating that there are areas of the country in which males are facing particular cultural challenges, which could result in “the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.

Why does this gender gap exist?

The Commission’s findings were widely reported in the press at the time. The key question: why has this happened? Analysis of last year’s GCSE results in England found that the gender gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in decades, and male pupils’ A-level results are also only slightly below the female average. So why are so many male students choosing to end their educational careers at this stage?

According to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the potential of these students is “somehow being let down by the school system”. Cook’s argument suggests that schools are not doing enough to adequately prepare and inspire their male students to continue their education after school. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, however, has taken an opposing stance on this, and suggests that the narrowing of the attainment gap between male and female pupils can in fact be attributed to schools more closely monitoring the performance of boys. He also believes that changing the focus of assessment from coursework to more exams has in fact resulted in the system now being in favour of male pupils.

The impact of the introduction of tuition fees must also be acknowledged. Speaking to the Guardian in March of this year, male pupils at a school in Ipswich where double the national average of pupils are in receipt of pupil premium funding expressed their unwillingness to enter into years of substantial debt for a course where there is no guarantee of a job at the end. This sentiment perhaps explains why the number of students taking up paid apprenticeships increased by 63.5% between 2010 and 2011. A different group of students from south London also raised the issue of social class. A lot of these boys would be the first in their families to attend university. Their admissions of not wanting to stand out academically for fear of what others may think, or seeming like an “outsider’ reveal the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged area can have on aspiration.

Others suggest that the problem lies in the structure of the post-compulsory education system. Courses in which female students have traditionally dominated, such as fashion and beauty, are increasingly being changed from college courses to three-year undergraduate courses, while qualifications for bricklaying and plumbing continue to be studied at further education and apprenticeship level. Recent years have also seen a focus on campaigns to try and encourage more female students to study more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) -related courses, for example, without equivalent targeting of male pupils.

What is being done to reduce the gap?

Following the guidance issued to the OFFA, universities minister Jo Johnson announced that the government had also asked universities to move towards a name-blind admissions system by 2017, and would introduce legislation to scrutinise the process in order to reveal where offer rates for the poorest students were particularly low. Johnson explained that the guidance asks universities, in return for the access agreements that allow them to charge fees up to the maximum of £9,000, to focus more strategically on groups, such as white British boys, with the lowest participation rates by “spending smarter” and focusing their outreach activities where they are most needed.

The answer, it would seem, is for all stakeholders to “do more”. However, despite the government setting a target to double the amount of poorer pupils admitted to university, a specific campaign aimed at narrowing the divide has yet to be announced. It could be argued that placing the onus on universities to increase the number of admissions of white male students is the wrong answer – some, like Tony Sewell, former teacher and CEO of education charity Generating Genius, argue that this is a problem that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage, as the gap shows signs of developing from primary level.

Overall, it would appear that addressing issues around social class in the system is key to stopping the divide from increasing any further. While Oxford University rebutted the Prime Minister’s assertion that it did not do enough to attract pupils from all walks of life, the figures speak for themselves: the most advantaged students are still 6.8 times more likely to go to the most elite universities than disadvantaged students. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission regularly reports on a growing social divide in the country, including a system which continues to grant access to the elite universities according to family background rather than aptitude and ability. As the Commission’s latest state of the nation report notes, there is little chance of the government meeting its target until outreach activity becomes more focused on the areas where access is particularly low.

London’s digital skills shortage: a priority for the new Mayor

By Steven McGinty

London’s tech industry has become one of the key drivers of growth in the capital. Within the first  nine months of 2015 the industry raised approximately £1.1 billion; a substantial increase on the £911 million raised throughout 2014. Over the next 10 years, Oxford Economics research expects the sector to grow at a rate of 5.1% per year and to generate an extra £12 billion of economic activity. It’s predicted that this will create an additional 46,000 digital jobs.

However, the growth in London’s tech industry is not guaranteed. Although current London Mayor Boris Johnson claims there are more professional developers in London than in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, a recent CBI/KPMG London Business Survey indicates that there is still a shortage of skilled professionals.

Jess Tyrrell, Associate Director for the Centre for London and Director of the Connecting Tech City Programme, explains that “the skills shortage has grown from an ‘issue’ to a ‘crisis”. She warns that unless London can develop its talent pipeline, its digital potential may never be realised.

London Mayoral election

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that the tech industry has become an issue in London’s mayoral election. One of the front runners, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, has promised that he’ll appoint a chief digital officer (CDO) to manage the city’s data and introduce a £1m “Mayor’s Tech Challenge” to encourage innovation. He has also voiced concerns at losing young tech professionals because of the cost of housing.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan (reported by YouGov to be currently leading the race) recently met with leaders of the industry body Tech UK. The organisation noted that Mr Khan was particularly interested in tackling the skills shortage and looking at how young Londoners could be better represented in the tech industry.

The Mayoral Manifesto for the Digital Economy

At the end of last year, the London Assembly Economy Committee published a manifesto identifying the main three challenges that the Mayor should seek to address. These were:

  • poor broadband connectivity for London businesses
  • a lack of gender and socio-economic diversity in the digital labour market
  • the significant shortage of skilled workers

The first challenge is self-evident. For a digital economy to be successful, it must be built on fast, reliable, access to broadband. Perhaps more interesting is the relationship between improving diversity and the skills shortage. Most notably, there is a strong argument that encouraging non-traditional groups – i.e. those who are not white, male and middle class – will help reduce the skills shortage.

Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of the lastminute.com (and an advisor to the UK government on rolling out broadband and digital services) is in favour of increasing diversity and believes that unemployed women should be trained to help address this skills crisis. In an article for the Financial Times, she states that:

Any company – or, more boldy, country – that dramatically improves its tech diversity will have enormous competitive advantage.

The Committee’s manifesto also makes a number of recommendations for the new Mayor. For example, it suggests that tech apprenticeships should be designed to give disadvantaged Londoners the best possible training, and that the Mayor could endorse the industry-led TechTalent Charter, which aims to increase gender diversity in the tech industry.

London’s Digital Future: The Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016

In January, Tech UK, the Centre for London, and the Tech London advocates released their manifesto for the future London Mayor. Ben Rogers, Director of the Centre for London, states that:

The responsibility of the next Mayor is to ensure that London gets the best of the digital revolution.

Like the London Assembly’s report, the Tech Manifesto focuses on the current skills shortage, noting that 93% of tech firms believe the skills gap is having a direct negative impact on their business.

The manifesto argues that London must do more to mend its fractured talent pipeline. One suggestion put forward is to establish a Digital Apprenticeship Task Force within the first 100 days of the new Mayor’s term of office. Its purpose would be to improve the quality and quantity of higher and degree-level apprenticeships. The next Mayor, say the authors of the manifesto, should work with the tech sector to ensure that the apprenticeships are fit-for-purpose, and should be particularly focused on areas where demand for skills is greatest.

With the EU referendum on the horizon, it’s also interesting to note the emphasis on tech companies having the freedom to recruit talent from across the globe. The manifesto recommends that the next Mayor should be an advocate for providing clear routes for migrant workers under the Tier 2 skilled worker visa, and oppose any restrictions. It also suggests that the Mayor should work with London universities to investigate the possibility of a trial of the Post-Study Work Visa for occupations where there is a clear skills shortage.

Final thoughts

The shortage of tech skills is a global problem. However, it’s a challenge that London must address if its digital economy is to avoid a slowdown. A key priority for the next Mayor of London should be to develop the tech industry’s talent pipeline. In practical terms, this is likely to involve protecting the industry’s access to skilled migrant workers, to ensure London’s growth in the short term, alongside investing in London’s diverse population and encouraging the best and the brightest to seek out exciting tech careers.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on the digital sector.

Higher apprenticeships – the way forward?

apprentices in workshopBy Heather Cameron

With the mounting costs associated with higher education study, it isn’t any wonder that young people are looking for alternative routes to their chosen career.

A recent survey has found that 4 in 10 of the first students to pay the higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, say university is not good value.

Opinion varied between students doing different types of courses however. Two-thirds of those studying science, technology, maths and engineering – where a lot of practical teaching and staff time is required – said their courses had been good value.

It would seem that employers are also looking for more than just academic qualifications. It has always been something of a catch-22 situation for graduates who can’t get a job because they don’t have the required work experience, despite having relevant qualifications.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy and Research revealed that graduates and A-level students are three times more likely to be jobless a year after finishing their courses than apprentices. It also found that unemployment rates have risen at all levels of education, except within apprenticeships.

Higher apprenticeships

According to a study by ICM Research in 2013, those with a higher, degree-level, apprenticeship were rated by employers as the most employable, ahead of those who had university degrees. The top six qualifications rated the most valuable were:

  • Higher Apprenticeship
  • University degree
  • Advanced Apprenticeship
  • Intermediate Apprenticeship
  • Level 3 vocational qualification
  • A-Levels

Indeed, the many benefits to businesses of higher apprenticeships have been recently highlighted. They enable employers to gain links with universities and colleges which can help them to develop learning programmes based on the skills they need. The National Apprenticeship Service says that higher apprenticeships are critical to the economy as they:

  • respond to employers’ higher level skill needs;
  • support business growth;
  • meet individuals’ career aspirations;
  • and enhance opportunities for social mobility.

Higher apprenticeships, created in 2009, offer a work-based learning programme which includes the achievement of academic and vocational qualifications and learning from level 4 up to bachelor’s and master’s degrees at levels 6 and 7 respectively. Degree apprenticeships are the latest model to be developed as part of the higher apprenticeship.

Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has estimated that the lifetime benefit of undertaking an intermediate apprenticeship is extra earnings of between £48,000 and £74,000, and an advanced apprenticeship between £77,000 and £117,000.

This figure rises to over £150,000 for a higher apprenticeship, comparable to university graduates.

Roll out and take-up

In 2011 the government announced a £25 million fund to support up to 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeships in order to help businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), gain the high level skills they need to grow.

The Higher Apprenticeship Fund (HAF) aimed to develop a range of higher level apprenticeships, and fund 20,000 apprentices by 2015. The fund was awarded to 29 higher apprenticeship projects, in sectors including accountancy, engineering and law. The government has announced an additional £40m to fund places up until July 2015, and an extra £20m to fund the higher educational element to the end of March 2016.

Following the introduction of the fund, the number of higher apprenticeship starts rose by 68% in 2011/12. There were almost 10,000 starts during 2012/13, representing growth of 165% on the previous year.

In the last academic year over 9,000 people started a higher apprenticeship, with numbers continuing to grow.

Role of universities in providing vocational education

With the growth in higher apprenticeships, universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs) have an important role to play in this provision. The 2015/16 academic year is the first time that there will be a substantial group of HEIs in the apprenticeships delivery network.

A collection of recent think pieces have made a strong case for greater vocational education through universities and colleges. One contributor notes that governments around the world widely accept that vocational education is the way to meet growing industry needs and fill identified skills gaps. But policy makers in the UK are faced with the obstacle of an old-fashioned education system.

It is clear that the traditional form of higher education is not going to supply businesses with the higher level skills needed for economic growth. According to research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), by 2022, two million more jobs will require higher level skills. More than one in five of all vacancies are ‘skills shortage’ vacancies – where employers cannot find people with the skills and qualifications needed.

The research highlights the importance of collaborations between employers and universities in the supply of highly skilled people to meet this demand. It argues that universities and employers need to be innovative, and engaged in promoting different and non-traditional routes into higher skill roles.

Good practice evidence of such collaboration already exists in the UK, as showcased by the 12 case studies, which explore the reasons for and benefits of collaboration in six industrial sectors – Advanced Manufacturing, Construction, Creative and Digital, Energy, IT and Life Sciences.

Across a wide range of collaboration with employers, universities contributed more than £3.5 billion to the UK economy in 2012/13, a 5% increase from the previous year. Significant volumes of courses and continuing professional development (CPD) are also provided by UK HEIs directly to employers, with £423 million worth of business completed in 2012/13, of which £19 million was with SMEs.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement. Policy makers, HEIs and businesses all need to work together if the drive towards higher level vocational education is to succeed.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on vocational education – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Polytechnics-plus: releasing the potential of colleges, IN Graduate Market Trends, Spring 2015, pp12-13

Higher apprenticeships better than university, IN Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin, No 120 14 Jul 2014, pp2-3

Economic impact of apprenticeships: a Cebr report for the Skills Funding Agency. Centre for Economics and Business Research (2014)

Improving employability skills, enriching our economy: case study report. National Foundation for Educational Research (2014)

Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills. Confederation of British Industry (2013)

The potential for higher apprenticeships: research report. Learning and Skills Improvement Service (2013)

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