The UK’s modern education system dates back to the 1944 and 1947 Education Acts, which created universal free secondary education. The system was built around three types of schools: grammar, secondary modern and secondary technical. In effect, this created the divide between technical and academic education and the perception that one was better than the other – the legacy of which the UK has found it so hard to shake, despite repeated efforts to do so.

It was at this time that my own organisation CACHE came into being. CACHE began life in 1945 as the National Nursery Examination Board (NNEB) and the board set the syllabus for the first national examination, which took place in 1947. Since then, the technical education landscape has changed considerably, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Policymakers have sought to address this structural divide, which has too often meant that technical education in the UK is considered as the poor relation to academic routes and, depicted as failing to deliver success for our young people.

More than 70 years on, the technical education sector is once again facing wholesale reform.

The 2016 OECD report "building skills for all: a review of england", noted that, “if the English education system were to be designed from scratch on a blank sheet of paper it would be unlikely to include an awkward programmatic and institutional break point at 16…” Sadly, we have never been able to wipe the slate clean and start from ‘a blank sheet’ and as a result, we have an extremely complicated technical education system, with a raft of different qualifications. This has been further complicated by piecemeal reforms that have too often failed to stick or been abandoned.

It is clear the system needs structural reform to ensure that both pathways offer a well-regarded, route to successful careers, but in that reform, we must be careful not to lose sight of the positives and existing strengths, as when the current system works, it works really well.

The technical education system is responsible for training young people to fulfil a range of highly-skilled, key roles in our society - and it does it well. For example, those studying CACHE qualifications develop the skills and expertise to become care workers, early years’ educators, nursery staff and teaching assistants amongst others – meeting the needs of our ageing population, and growing demand for nursery places.

The system does not work when we lose that focus and expertise and learners study qualifications that do not necessarily lead to anything else – simply to keep them in education until 18. A quick survey of history demonstrates this. 

Structural issues within the education system were first identified as a problem in 1963, in the Newsom Report – the first in a long line of such reviews commissioned by the Government to look at the system and how to reform it. The report, ‘Half Our Future’, found that the education system was failing less-able students aged 13-16. It argued that such young people made up, "half the pupils of our secondary schools”, meaning that the system was essentially failing half our young people.

Since then, successive governments of all political persuasions have sought to close the gap between technical and academic education, with varying degrees of success. In the last decade alone, we have seen three such reviews and resulting reforms.

In 2005, the Labour Government sought to replace existing qualifications with a post 14-19 Diploma designed to bridge the gap between vocational and academic education. Introduced in 2009/10, it soon became clear that the Diploma was ill-conceived and when the Coalition Government came into power in 2010, they set about dismantling the reforms. This came at great cost and inconvenience, not just to 30,000 learners studying it, but also for providers and awarding organisations, who had all drastically altered their offers to deliver the new diploma.

Then came the Coalition commissioned, 2011 Wolf Review – which once again considered how to improve vocational education for 14-19 year olds, to allow learners to succeed in the labour market. This resulted in significant changes, including a new funding formula and redesigned apprenticeships developed in conjunction with employers through the trailblazers initiative.

The most recent iteration, the Sainsbury Review, went further proposing a more radical overhaul of the system, creating two clear, easy to follow pathways – both offering credible qualifications and routes into employment for young people. The Government accepted all the recommendations and set out plans for reform, in its Post-16 Skills Plan. This was broadly welcomed by the sector, yet greeted with a degree of caution by those of us, who, frankly, have seen it all before, and were left picking up the pieces when previous attempts failed.

Key concerns include the speed at which the Government plans to overhaul the system – originally introducing the first T-Levels in 2019, now 2020 – questions as to whether the two routes will simply further entrench the divide between technical and academic education, and the limitations associated with having just 15 routes and how these will cover the full breadth of occupations within them in practice.

Through the introduction of T-Levels, the Government is seeking to create greater parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, with 15 clear routes for success for learners choosing the vocational path at 16. They have also recognised the need to ensure that the system meets the needs of employers and gives young people the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

The reforms do not stop there, they are also looking at what comes next, with a review of higher level technical qualifications at Level 4 and 5 – ensuring that those who want to, can progress to further study and higher education.

These changes are important – but we must not forget that learners are real people and changes will not only affect those yet to make their decision for post-16, but also those with existing qualifications and those who will be in the middle of their studies in 2020. We need to make sure that there are suitable transition arrangements in place for such learners, particularly those currently studying qualifications, which under new arrangements – particularly for health and social care (an apprenticeship only route) – will cease to exist!

We must also ensure that the expertise and skills delivered through these existing qualifications is not lost. It is also vital that we retain a diverse, competitive vocational qualifications sector – one which promotes high standards and best practice and offers specialist qualifications for each route, aligned with the needs of employers.

In creating two distinct pathways, the Government must be careful not to close off options for learners at 16. To prevent this, it is vital that T-level qualifications are transferable and allow learners to accrue UCAS points, so that should they wish to, they can change path later.

Plans for the new T-levels are gathering pace, with the launch of the T-Level implementation consultation late last year, followed by the Institute for Apprenticeships' consultation on the occupational maps, which will determine how the qualifications are delivered and the options that learners are offered. We now have a lot more detail on how the new system will work in practice, however, as always, the devil is in the detail much of which is still to be worked out.

With the tender process for the qualifications due to launch this summer and the first T-Levels to be delivered in 2020, there is a lot of work to do, in a short space of time, if we are to ensure that this is the reform that finally sticks.

Julie Hyde, Associate Director, CACHE (Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education)

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