The Government must stick to its guns on technical education reforms

Budget announcements on T-levels and lifelong learning could make a big difference in preparing people for the changing nature of work – if the Government sees them through

The ongoing fallout from last week’s budget and the Government’s subsequent U-turn on national insurance has overshadowed many of the other announcements made by Philip Hammond, including the new reforms to technical education and lifelong learning.

The creation of T-levels, along with increases in teaching hours and maintenance loans for students taking higher-level technical courses, all aim to create greater parity between technical and academic routes. If successful, these reforms should increase participation, widen routes into employment and lead to better outcomes – which would be a good thing for all cities, but particularly those with high youth unemployment rates and low numbers of young people enrolling in university.

However, sticking to these changes in the long-term will be more important than introducing them if the Government is to make a serious improvement to the quality of technical education, and to ensure employers recognise the real value in these qualifications. As the Institute for Government highlighted earlier this week, there have been 28 major pieces of legalisation on further education since the 1980s, and this instability comes with economic and human costs.

More consistent has been the desire to make the system more responsive to the needs of employers, both now and in the future. The T-levels essentially refer to the 15 new technical education routes first announced last year in the Post-16 Skills Plan, and local areas will be charged with deciding which routes to focus on ‘in order to meet the demands’ of the local economy. Engagement with local businesses will be critical in ensuring that these routes respond to the demands of employers and that students have access to high quality work placements.

But young people also need the core skills that will give them a degree of flexibility in the changing economy: according to one study, 65 per cent of children starting at primary school now will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t exist yet. In this regard, the inclusion in the Post-16 Skills Plan of the ‘common core’ proposed by the Sainsbury panel (focusing on Maths, English and digital skills) was a welcome step which will help equip young people for long-term careers, not just specific jobs.

This ties in with the Chancellor’s announcement on the DfE’s lifelong learning pilots, with £40 million being allocated to test different approaches. Technological and demographic change means that people are increasingly likely to have multiple careers and will need to retrain throughout their working lives. Lifelong learning may also help individuals progress in work, as employment training can have a positive impact on earnings. This again requires close working with employers: the most effective programmes tend to involve employer co-design and on-the-job training.

The two announcements present opportunities for cities to influence and improve local education and training for the benefit of residents and businesses. Cities have an important role to play in engaging employers and providers as part of this and a clear understanding of the local labour market and how it is changing is also critical. Our research programme this year on the future of work aims to help inform cities on these changes and what they mean for policy, and we’ll be reporting on the findings as they emerge.

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