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.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


You may also find these blog posts on housing of interest:

Education Bill scrapped: the local government impact

by Stacey Dingwall

This week saw the UK government officially drop plans for the Education Bill it announced during the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. Initially announced by then Chancellor George Osborne during last year’s Autumn Statement, the Bill would have seen all state schools in England removed from local authority control and forced to become academies by 2020.

Academies: the government’s U-turn

As we reported at the time, reaction to the plans was broadly negative. Critics of academies point to the lack of evidence that academies are successful in raising attainment, particularly among pupils from deprived areas.

Despite tweeting in March that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”, then education secretary Nicky Morgan announced only two months later that the negative reaction from the education sector had convinced the government to drop plans for total academisation.

Of course, a matter of mere months can be a long time in politics, particularly in a year that has seen the country divided by Brexit and the complete overhaul of a government that was only elected one year prior. While the scrapping of the Education Bill could seem abrupt, in fact it fits in with the wider determination Theresa May has shown in trying to shape policy direction since she took office six months ago. Indeed, the Education Bill is just one of the policies – and departments – that the new PM has scrapped so far.

What does this have to do with grammar schools?

Aside from academies and free schools, the other key issue dominating English education policy is that of grammar schools. Overturning the Labour government’s ban on introducing new grammars is one of four proposals in education secretary Justine Greening’s ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation paper. Ever since the government’s proposal to bring back grammar schools was leaked in September, the plans have been met with widespread criticism, including by outgoing Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw.

Current education secretary Justine Greening says that scrapping the Education Bill is not directly linked to the grammar schools plans. However, others, including the Labour opposition benches, suspect that it indicates that the government is having second thoughts again – this time on reintroducing grammars.

Funding cuts

While the scrapping of the Bill means that local authorities will retain control over state schools, it has created an issue in terms of funding. When the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Sir Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, has urged the government to reverse this decision, stating that while the Board is pleased that councils’ concerns over education reform have been listened to, implementing the cuts would seriously hamper local authorities’ ability to ensure children are able to access a range of educational services.

Aside from providing access to things like speech therapy and music lessons, the funding also helps councils to plan for new school places each term. A lack of school places is an ongoing concern in England, with a predicted shortfall of 10,000 primary places across the country within four years. Research published last week also indicted that half of secondary schools are oversubscribed, particularly those rated the highest by Ofsted.

The looming funding cut has also been criticised by Conservative-led councils, who argue that the funding is vital to their provision of school improvement services. Following the scrapping of the Bill, schools will be legally required to run school improvement services from next year. It remains to be seen just how they will be able to achieve this following yet another reduction on funding from central government.

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Building Britain’s future: how the Infrastructure Act will affect local authorities

By Steven McGinty

After several months of debate, the Infrastructure Act was given royal assent on the 12th February 2015, introducing a number of important changes. The Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech with the intention to:

“bolster investment in infrastructure and reform planning law to improve economic competitiveness”.

On the day of its assent, Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, expanded on this, explaining that:

“This act will hugely boost Britain’s competitiveness in transport, energy provision, housing development and nationally significant infrastructure projects. Cost efficient infrastructure development is all part of the government’s long term economic plan, boosting competitiveness, jobs and growth.”

The Act has resulted in a number of policy changes.  The majority of these are relatively mundane and are unlikely to engender much public scrutiny; however, there are a few high profile and controversial changes. Below I’ve outlined some of the most important changes for local authorities, as well as communities.

Land Registry

The Act has introduced changes to Local Land Charges, transferring responsibility from individual local councils in England and Wales to the Land Registry, which will be providing a broader range of services. This was recommended in the ‘Land Registry, Wider Powers and Local Land Charges’ report, which suggested a need to standardise costs and provide a more predictable service.

This has been criticised by the Local Government Association (LGA), who have suggested that local councils are best placed to meet the needs of businesses and local residents.  They have also raised concerns about the costs involved in making technical changes to local council systems, as well as the disruption it would cause to the property market. It’s estimated that local councils have about 20 million entries on their registers of Local Land Charges, across 350 local councils.

Community Rights and energy exploration (fracking and renewable energy)

Individuals within or connected to a community have been given the rights to buy a stake in renewable electricity schemes.  This appears to have been well received, as local residents are now able to receive some of the financial benefits of local electricity production.

However, changes to hydraulic fracking have been a lot more controversial.  The Act allows energy companies the right to exploit petroleum or deep geothermal energy, without notifying the owners of the land, as long as it’s at least 300 meters below surface level. They also have the right to put any substance underground, to change the condition of the land, and to leave material behind.

Not surprisingly, campaigners, such as Simon Clydesdale from Greenpeace UK, have criticised these changes, suggesting that the new legislation is encouraging fracking and is so loosely worded that it could possibly permit the burial of nuclear waste.

Discharge of Planning Conditions

The Act makes it clear that certain types of planning conditions can be discharged if on application to the local authority, the developer has not had a decision made within the prescribed period. It also allows the Secretary of State to make a development order relating to the discharge of a planning condition in an area. This would mean that local authorities would not be able to stop these developments for lack of written approval.

Mayoral Development Orders

These orders provide greater powers to the Mayor of London to grant planning permission for development on specified sites within Greater London. It’s been seen as a useful reform to make it easier for planning permission to be granted on complex sites that cross local authority boundaries. This has been viewed as important for tackling London’s housing shortage.

Although not all of the changes are as high profile as fracking, it’s important that local authorities take time to examine the Infrastructure Act, and to make sure that they are ready to respond to the new legislative environment.


Although many of the changes in the Infrastructure Act will not come into force until a later date, local authorities need to be aware of the possible impact on planning processes and procedures.

Over two thirds of UK local authorities use Idox solutions to effectively manage the property and development lifecycle.

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

Further reading