Vocational education cannot be an afterthought, business leaders say


Business and education leaders are calling for urgent reform and investment for vocational education, amid reports of chronic skills shortages in the economy.

A Level, T Level and BTEC students will receive their final results this Thursday. However, there are serious concerns about whether further education is able to meet industry need without far-reaching change.  

T Levels were introduced in 2020 to provide a vocational qualification with the same prestige as an A Level but rollout has been far from straightforward.

The programme was recently given a red rating by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, meaning “there are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”

Courses have suffered from high dropout rates according to a recent report from Ofsted, with many students feeling “misled and ill-informed about their content and structure.”

One problem has been with the work experience element. Although businesses have welcomed a greater focus on vocational education, there has been a lack of industrial placements for digital, construction, and health and science courses.

Some employers have even stopped the placement halfway through, leaving students unable to complete the course.

Skills Minister Rob Halfon told the Education and Skills Select Committee last December that he “would rather be straight with the Committee than try to say that everything is all wonderful.”

Skills Minister Robert Halfon

There are also concerns over the future of BTEC courses.

Currently, students who do not meet the tough admission criteria to access T Levels are able to choose BTECs instead. However, BTEC courses which overlap with T Levels will lose their funding in 2025, leaving many young people without a further education pathway.

A recent cross-party group of Lords including former education secretary David Blunkett have called these plans “disastrous”, saying they would have a damaging impact on social mobility, economic growth and public services.

Henri Murison, Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and Darren Hankey, Principal of Hartlepool College, explain why changes are needed…

It is worrying that vocational education is often seen as the poor relation of academic studies. Investment in people is just as important as physical infrastructure and whenever we speak to businesses about the problems they face, we often get the same response: skills, or a lack thereof.

Making sure a young person in Bradford can get to a good job in Leeds or Manchester is only half the battle – they need also to have the necessary training and experience to secure that work in the first place.

This is where T Levels come in.

Many business and education leaders agree that these new qualifications could be part of the solution to tackling widespread skills shortages, particularly here in the North of England.

Unfortunately, they are suffering from what the Ofsted chief inspector has described as “teething issues”: high dropout rates, huge pressures on colleges and problems with industrial placements.

Addressing these challenges will require a joint effort from government and business.

A good first step would be for the Department for Education to cede control to those better placed to deliver, like powerful policy and delivery boards.

Alongside this, devolving more of the skills system to local leaders who are better able to join the dots with local industry need could be a gamechanger. Government has made a good start with this in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands but we need to go further and faster in other parts of the country.

We also need to see funding maintained for BTECs past 2025 as these courses remain a vital skills pathway for young people who do not meet the strict entry criteria for T Levels.

Vocational education in all its forms needs serious reform and investment. It cannot be an afterthought.

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