The ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ get forgotten again

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In a speech to the Social Market Foundation on 9 July, Gavin Williamson gave much-needed encouragement to the struggling further education (FE) sector when he said, “From now on, our mantra must be further education, further education, further education.” In a clear bid for support from the new Tory voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats, he sought to position himself as the new champion of the left-behind:

The tragedy is that, for decades, we’ve forgotten about half of our education system…………… That has to change. As Education Secretary, I will stand for the forgotten 50 per cent.”  

Far from championing the 50 per cent however, his proposals forget them again.

The centrepiece of his reform programme is an overhaul of technical education and in particular “establishing a high-quality system of higher technical education.” This, in itself, is not a bad idea. The number of people taking courses such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in colleges and universities has been declining for many years, and we have a lower proportion of people qualified at this level than most other advanced countries. 

Increasing the number taking such qualifications could help raise the level of skills in the workforce, and help address the persistent failure of the UK to match the productivity of either the USA or France and Germany. An Office for National Statistics report shows that in 2013, UK workers produced on average between 27 and 31 per cent less per hour than workers in France and Germany, and little has changed since.

It appears, however, that the government proposes to increase the number undertaking these sub-degree level programmes mainly by reducing the number taking a full three-year undergraduate degree. The newspaper headlines following Williamson’s speech focused heavily on his intention to abandon the target of half  our young people experiencing higher education (HE), and his assertion that when Tony Blair set the target, “he cast aside the other 50 per cent”. His message chimes with that of another Minister, Michelle Donelan, who claimed recently that in universities “there has been too much focus on getting students through the door”. She expanded on her views in evidence to the education select committee saying:  

“…it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”, adding that [higher education] “is not necessarily the best route to get to where you want to go in life”   

It is not clear how persuading someone to undertake a two-year Higher National Diploma (HND) rather than a three-year Batchelor of Science (BSc )contributes to upskilling the UK economy or raising productivity. Nor is it clear how encouraging students to follow two-year courses, rather than the traditional three, would affect their choice of subject – they would be just as likely to opt for those unfairly described as being ‘mickey mouse’. But whatever your view on these proposals, it is clear that they do nothing whatsoever for the forgotten 50 per cent.

Changing the balance between the numbers studying full degrees and those studying higher technical qualifications simply rearranges the options for the half who already enjoy good quality provision.  The introduction of ‘T’ levels alongside ‘A’ levels from September this year has the same effect. ‘T’ levels (the ‘T’ stands for technical) will be offered in subjects such as construction, IT and social care, and will give additional choices to those who are already well served by ‘A’ levels, BTECs and other vocational qualifications.  What is needed is better provision for those who are not well served by ‘A’ levels.

Just under 40 per cent of young people have no educational qualifications higher than GCSEs by the time they reach the age of 25. It is these who have been truly forgotten and there is nothing in Williamson’s speech that addresses them or their needs. Perhaps they will be included in the new White Paper promised for the autumn, which will set out “plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.”   ‘German style’ however, almost certainly means apprenticeships, since that is what the Germans do best, and what English policy makers have tried to copy for years without success. Now is hardly the time to expect employers to boost their recruitment of low-skilled young people.

The fact that around 40 cent of young people have low qualifications – or none at all – represents a huge waste of potential. To help more of them to progress towards higher qualifications is the place to start if we really want to increase social mobility.  As Mary Curnock-Cook argues in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), successful reform of higher education requires reform of secondary education as well.

To bring about an increase in the number taking higher technical qualifications without damaging our world-class HE sector, the government should focus on three things:

  • Relax the policy that all children must follow the same academic curriculum to the age of 16, and encourage the reintroduction of practical and vocational options. Researchers have found that they can help engage those who have become disaffected by their school experience, and can help young people make better choices when they finish the compulsory phase.
  • Resource our colleges so that they can provide the same level of teaching input enjoyed by young people studying in most other OECD countries: our students are taught for around 15 hours per week, compared with 25 hours per week elsewhere.
  • Reverse the cuts to adult education budgets so that those who have not reached their potential by the age of 19 can be supported to return to learning, and can progress, including through part-time routes. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, adult education funding fell by 45 per cent between 2010 and 2018.

Without actions like these, Gavin Williamson’s claim to “stand for the forgotten 50 per cent” will remain just fine words.

For more on apprenticeships, read Mick Fletcher’s piece here: