Over the last five years, there has been a sustained focus on skills as part of successive Conservative governments’ attempts to boost productivity and fill gaps in the UK’s labour market. Technical and vocational education has been painted as a viable alternative to traditional higher education, as the Government has focused policy change in this area and repeatedly questioned the value of several university courses.

It also serves a political goal, allowing room to critique the prior Labour administration’s role in increasing the number of university graduates and linking it to increasingly expensive degrees. 

The aim of rebalancing education between higher and further education is undoubtedly warranted. Increasing the number of young people choosing vocational pathways is necessary for the UK to deliver on its infrastructure and net zero ambitions, and compete on a global stage.

However, to pivot the UK’s young people, parents, and education system towards vocational skills, will take more than words and despite the many policy changes last year’s UCAS data recorded the second highest number of undergraduate applications ever. 

That isn’t to say the Government hasn’t tried.

New initiatives such as T levels and Local Skills Improvement Plans attempted to increase the practical element of post-16 education and ultimately, increase the involvement of employers. Both of these policies aimed to address the long-held criticism from industry that students are not leaving education ready to work. The Skills for Jobs White Paper, which introduced LSIPs, was a reference to the successful German style of technical education which sees much more employer involvement in the education system. UK employers currently invest around half of the EU average in training. However, the sector has suggested employers still need to take a more active role if the UK is to achieve the level of skills it requires. One reason this has been unsuccessful is because many colleges and SMEs just don’t have the resources to manage the required relationships well. Under the aforementioned German model, worker representatives, trade unions and local authorities are involved as co-producers.

A more successful and popular approach to improve skills education would have been reforming the apprenticeship levy. This was briefly mentioned by the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon last year before disappearing into the policy ether. Businesses have long since struggled with the conditions around apprenticeship levy spend and, although the scheme is designed to reroute unspent funds to SMEs, the reality is that serious issues still remain.

This is evident in the data; apprenticeship starts in England have dropped by 31% since the introduction of the levy in 2023 according to the CIPD. This drop is acute among small businesses, where the number of starts has declined by 49%. Large firms with 250 or more employers have seen a drop of 14% in comparison.  The Chancellor’s commitment at the Autumn Statement of £50m to deliver an apprenticeship pilot in growth sectors could go some way to address these issues, but as with other announcements, the details on exactly how to achieve this are lacking. 

Significant issues remain for students and teachers too. Although the Department for Education has yet to release data on the completion rate of T levels, an Ofsted report released this year suggested the drop-out rate is high. The report found teachers expressed concern about the balance between assessment requirements and the length of industry placements, and that students’ experiences on the courses vary considerably.

This perhaps spurred on Rishi Sunak’s announcement that both T and A levels are to be replaced by the new Advanced British Standard over the next decade. At this point in the election cycle, with the polls as they are, it’s unclear whether this will ever come to fruition. Labour haven’t commented further than a commitment to a broad curriculum which provides the ‘knowledge and skills’ that children need.

The glimmer of hope here is that students are willing to transition to technical and vocational education if the Government can get it right. UCAS’s data shows that almost half of applicants this year expressed an interest in apprenticeship opportunities. Perhaps this is the one area where the Government has achieved cut-through; UCAS reported students are actively choosing courses they perceive to have value and future career prospects.

Similarly, Rishi Sunak’s commitment for all students to learn Maths until the age of 18 should substantially increase our skills capabilities, providing there are enough teachers to fulfil it. This is perhaps the policy that will survive the election, with Labour committed to solving existing recruitment and retention issues. 

The education sector has seen significant churn in the last few years, as the Government tries to modernise the education system to provide the necessary skills for future industries, but the effect has been to leave providers in limbo and learners unsure of which path to take.

In a sense, it’s no wonder that achieving success has been so difficult, as the UK grapples with an ongoing teacher crisis, squeezed local authority budgets, and the ongoing impact of the pandemic, but it is a battle that needs to be fought to ensure the future prosperity of the country.

What is clear is that young people are interested in technical education and are basing their choices on what will deliver the most value.

It’s on this and future governments to make the skills route work for them. 

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