15 August 2018

Britain’s technical education system needs a radical reboot


For far too long, technical education in Britain has been looked down on. The enduring and pernicious stereotype has long been that it is only suitable for those who are unable to keep up with core curriculum at GCSE level, have little chance of completing A levels and absolutely no hope of being accepted by even the least selective universities.

This problem only got worse with Tony Blair’s misguided plan to get 50 per cent of the population into university. The idea has been aggressively pushed by successive governments and helped along by teachers and the marketing departments of universities peddling the idea that a degree is a golden ticket for a rewarding and lucrative career. As a result, parents and children have seen increasingly seen the university route as the only one worth taking.

More and more students graduating has deflated the value of degrees. Huge numbers of graduates end up finding work in a role which has no relevance to their course and often requires a completely different skill set. It also solidified technical education’s status in people’s minds as a last resort.

There have been attempts to redress this balance. Since 2010, 118 technical schools have been set up. It would be a stretch to describe these as a success. Many of them have shut down or have been forced to convert into other types of school. Those that have managed to stay open are outperformed by mainstream schools on GCSE results, are heavily in debt, and ranked by Ofsted as either “Requires Improvement” or “Inadequate”.

This failure is directly related to the low esteem in which technical education is held. It is a vicious cycle which puts off children who would be suitable for learning technical skills from applying.

The consequences are dire. The children who are forced into technical education end up having their life chances adversely affected. What is more, there is a skills shortage. In 2015, 43 per cent of vacancies in skilled trades/occupations were due to the gap between the skills need and the skills job seekers have.

That deficit needs to be dealt with, but is projected to become even more severe. A predicted further 3.6 million vacancies in mid-level skilled occupations, such as advanced manufacturing, will open up by 2022.

One of the many casualties in all this is productivity, which is the key driver of economic growth and higher living standards. And so a shortage of good technical education isn’t just a problem for the individuals let down by the current system. It’s a major problem for the economy as a whole.

That’s why Toby Young’s new paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, Technically Gifted is such a welcome contribution to the debate. Papers that offer an effective solution that is politically feasible are in short supply in Westminster. But Technically Gifted is exactly that.

At the very heart of Young’s proposals is the argument that there needs to be a fundamental rethink of how we view technical education. Instead of it being seen as a route for children who are unsuitable for more mainstream education, it should rather be seen as for children who are suitable for technical education.

What we need are a number of high-quality new schools that focus on technical education where pupils learn a variety of skills. However, the pupils at these schools will also be required to also study at least five core GCSE subjects.

Young argues that admission to these schools should be selective, with those showing a commitment and an aptitude for technical skills being admitted. This should be done when the children are 14, as opposed to 16. These skills and interests are already evident by the time a child turns 14. If left until 16, then it will risk falling into the trap present inthe current system of becoming a place where pupils with poor GCSE results are sent. Introducing selection at 14 will increase competition for places and will attract pupils with an aptitude for the training.

Britain should learn from what works in other education systems. In South Korea, a country widely regarded as having a world-beating education system, schools for 15-18 year olds are divided between general high schools, vocational high schools, science high schools, and high schools with particular occupational specialisms. There is a parity of esteem for all these schools. The vocational and occupational schools are incredibly popular and achieve excellent results.

One of the key strengths of these schools is that they “can adapt their curriculum to industry needs”. As a result they are taken seriously as places preparing their students to work in particular occupations, and therefore meaningfully improve their job prospects.

Selective schools offering technical education in the United States are also very successful. These schools work closely with leading local employers and rank among the best in their state. Many of their students go on to study at leading universities such as MIT, Yale, and Princeton.

Britain can go even further. We should create specialist schools for students with aptitudes and interests in art, music, sport, drama, science, and mathematics. We should also ensure that there are schools which are world leaders in providing education for children with special educational needs. Pupils would get to focus on what they are talented at and what they are interested in, while also ensuring they study core subjects at GCSE.

Such a system would turn school from being somewhere that forces them down a uniform route which is not suitable for them, into a place where they can thrive, and develop the talents they have and the skills they need.

We need a paradigm shift in our approach to education. Instead of seeing technical education as being for those unsuitable for a more standard approach, it should instead be for those with an aptitude and interest in it. Schools with different specialisms allow children to gain a world class education based on their skills and interests. We might even want to go further than Young, and consider a voucher system that would put more power in the hands of the parents.

Either way, a diverse system that actually takes technical education seriously would help ensure that all children receive a high quality education, businesses get the workers they need, and productivity and living standards improve.

Ben Ramanauskas is a Policy Analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.