Chapter 16 – Developments in the Late 1990s and Early 2000.

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education



The last two chapters will mainly describe the latest developments in technical and commercial education and training. Time will only tell if this or the next government bring about lasting improvements to this important sector of education and how this might be interpreted within an historical perspective.

The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed massive changes in the way colleges and training providers were managed. The diagram encapsulates the key strategic management after the FEFC was established.

Before April 2001 After April 2001
9 FEFC Regional Offices
82 TECs/22 LEC and
Training Standards Council (TSC)
47 Local Learning and Skills Councils
Adult Learning Inspectorate/Ofsted

The various initiatives during the 1990s had changed the FE sector and by definition technical and commercial education and training. New curricula and qualifications significantly changed the FE sector and the change process continued at a pace in the 2000s. By the late 1990s 14 million people had obtained NQV level 2 but had not progressed onto level 3. In addition almost 30% of young people failed to achieve NVQ level 2. Also 7 million adults held no qualifications at all and 21 million had not achieved NVQ level 3 or its equivalent. The population of the UK is approximately 60 million with about 28 million people in employment. Even more worrying was that 20% of all adults still had poor literacy and numeracy skills. Britain was placed in 9th place out of 12 industrial nations in the late 1990s! However these facts and indicators are understandable given the historical context described in this history. The wider context included the limited opportunities available to people both young and adult to access further education and training, the reluctance by employers to release workers to improve their skills and knowledge and the failure to support and help people with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

The FE sector was described by the Parliamentary Education and Employment Select Report on Further Education published in 1998 as an important element in the education and training system reporting that the FE colleges:

  • were the main providers of full-time and part-time education and training for 16-19 year olds, serving 500,000 people
  • were the key players in providing skills training as part of the drive to meet the National Targets for Education and Training.

Table 1 shows the comparative levels of expenditure in the education sectors in 1996-97.

Table 1. Government Spending on Education in 1996-97.

Sector Number of Students in
FTEs in millions
Total Funding
(in billions £)
Under 5s and Primary Schools 4.3 8.0
Secondary Schools 3.0 8.0
Higher Education 1.0 4.6
Further Education 1.2 3.3

Source: DfEE Departmental Report 1998.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

In 1999 the government published ‘Learning to Succeed’ White Paper. This set out plans to modernise and radically reform the management of post-16 education and training in England. The presentation style and content of this White Paper reflected the growing trend of such government documents – glossy and full of grandiose statements which are often difficult to comprehend and interpret. The main points were:

  • Individuals will achieve their full potential and companies will thrive
  • That can compete with the best, that is well equipped and adoptable enough to our economic future
  • That is confident, socially inclusive, with strong families and neighbourhoods, where people grow and can be equipped to play a full part in their community and
  • In which creativity, enterprise and a regard for learning can flourish.

See what I mean a list of vacuous rhetoric – motherhood and apple pie! I presume these catch all statements refer to learners, businesses, providers and society in general. Some of the reasons for the changes were that FE college provision was seen to be uneven in quality, had been the subject of sleaze e.g. franchising and also perceived as too competitive – an interesting criticism as it was the funding methodology that encouraged inter-college competition! The TECs were also seen as uneven in quality with variable standards and apt to be too bureaucratic. The LEAs were also accused of overseeing a wide variation of management of school provision. The management of these organisations was seen as poor in terms of implementing government policy especially at the post-16 stage of education. Other criticisms included incoherence and inconsistency in policy making, undue complexity, insufficient focus on quality, unhelpful competition and expense with little regard to value for money.

The White Paper went on to set the new agenda for post-16 education and training. It proposed that a new Learning and Skills Council (LSC) would be established with the following responsibilities;

  • Funding FE colleges; assuming a responsibility previously held by the FEFC
  • Advising the government on the National Training Targets and assuming responsibility previously held by the National Advisory Council for Education ad Training targets (NACETT)
  • Funding the Modern Apprenticeships, National Traineeships and other government funded training and workforce development; a former TEC responsibility
  • Developing, in partnership with LEAs, arrangements for adult and community learning
  • Providing information, advice and guidance to adults
  • Working with the pre-16 education sector to ensure coherence across all 14-19 education.

In other words, following the ‘Learning and Skills Act’ in 2001, the FEFC, TECs and LECs were replaced by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) which assumed responsibility for the planning and funding of FE and government funded training. The LSC worked through a regional network of 47 Local Learning and Skills Councils (LLSCs). It had an annual budget of £6 billion and a very wide remit which included the following elements relevant to technical and work based education and training:

  • Assess learning and skills needs and implement the Skills Task Force proposals
  • Coordinate planning and funding for: FE colleges, 6th forms, work-based training, workforce development, education-business partnerships and careers advice and guidance for adults
  • Education -Business links.

It was further stated that the LSCs would work to achieve a post-16 learning culture which would:

  • Be responsive to the needs of individuals and employers
  • Promote employability for individuals by equipping them with skills that are in demand in the labour market
  • Help employers develop employees to achieve world class business performance
  • Ensure targeted support for the most disadvantaged and promote equality of opportunities
  • Secure the entitlement of all 16-19 year olds to stay in learning
  • Promote excellence and high quality of service
  • Remove unnecessary bureaucracy and secure maximum effectiveness and value for money.

Again a long list of jargon and empty rhetoric and as time would show the LSC and the LLSCs largely failed to bring about any real lasting improvement in raising skills or putting technical and commercial education and training more centre stage in the education system.

The LSC replaced the FEFC, the LLSCs replaced the TECs, the Small Business Service and their local franchises replaced the Business Links and a new inspection regime was created replacing the Training Standards Council (TSC) and the Training Inspectorate. As a result an extended FE sector was established that comprised over 400 FE colleges, approximately 2,000 training providers, 2,000 school sixth-forms and a number of voluntary/community groups/institutions. In addition the Training Standards Council (TSC) which monitored and inspected colleges and other training providers was replaced by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) which worked closely with Ofsted to inspect provision in the colleges and other training providers. Overall the new inspection regime was ill-equipped to assess the effectiveness and quality in colleges with many of the inspectors largely ignorant or unsympathetic towards the culture of the FE sector.

So yet another set of organisations was established to tackle the problems confronting the post-16 sector including technical education and training. The FEFC period had left the FE sector and its constituent institutions in a weakened position through the operation of a very divisive and insensitive funding regime that was based solely on the popularity of certain courses and offering little protection to low recruiting, high cost craft, technician and technologist programmes. The funding regime as mentioned before in earlier chapters was a process that was driven by ‘bums on seats’ or ‘the dash for cash’. College budgets were also subjected to a mechanism called convergence which made massive assumptions about how much courses cost and did not acknowledge the history of a college’s development and its commitment to technical and practical based subjects. If colleges were committed to high cost low recruiting courses then they were heavily penalised and many institutions ceased or reduced their involvement in technical subjects which required expensive facilities. Many colleges closed, downsized or merged their technical departments and this ultimately led to shortages in a number of technical areas e.g. plumbing, electrical installation etc. As a result of colleges’ inability to satisfy the demand private operators moved in to fill the gap, many of which were not particularly competent nor did they have proper facilities to deliver a quality provision.

As one can imagine the landscape changed significantly following the creation of LSC, LLSCs and the other new organisations after 2001. The diagram below attempts to show these changes.

Post-16 Education And Training

Post-16 Education And Training

Inevitably the structures continued to be unduly complex and this led to problems with communication and misinformation and this often created implementation strategies lacking coherence and consistency. In addition the LEAs were apt to reflect the political beliefs, values and ideology of the main political party and their elected members. This factor coupled with the emerging culture of quangos and agencies created a cocktail of confusion and uncertainty particularly in the minds of senior staff in colleges. Very often conflicting advice, guidance and information was given by these various organisations to college managers and their governing bodies. This mix of local, regional and national policies was often contradictory in nature and/or driven by political dogma. Very often local MPs could cause real problems for college managers by their interventions and ill-informed views or prejudices towards the institutions and their senior managers and what they thought was important in provision.
It might be interesting at this point to remind ourselves how this new landscape compared with the one that existed during the FEFC period.

The Structure of the FE System in England and Wales in 1995.

HE Sector
Funded by HEFC
HE Colleges/Institutions
FE Sector
Funded by FEFC and FCFCW
General FE and Tertiary Colleges
Art and Design Colleges
Agriculture Colleges
Other specialist and monotechnic colleges
6th Form Colleges
Adult Education Centres
Secondary School Sector
Funded by DfE
Welsh Office
Secondary Schools 11 to 18

Although overall student numbers have grown significantly in FE and HE during the past fifteen years enrolments in key strategic subjects like engineering, physical sciences, mathematics and statistics continued to decline. Equally worrying is the decline in enrolments in craft and technician programmes. As a result many technical subject departments in colleges and training providers continued to close or downsize in such key areas as the crafts/trades, construction and engineering etc. Clearly closing technical departments also by definition contributed further to reduced enrolments in technical subjects. Eventually the press and other media publicised shortages of training places in colleges and correctly identified that this would lead to shortages of trained and qualified plumbers, bricklayers and other crafts/trades people. The FEFC had created a bureaucratic model of incorporation and exercised significant control through its over complicated funding methodology that unfortunately the LSCs continued.

When the LSC movement was established many TEC staff were appointed partly to minimise redundancy costs and as a result the Councils were overstaffed and employed people who lacked the appropriate experience to rise to the challenging LSC agenda and oversee the planning and funding of the post-16 sector. The first few years witnessed a relatively large turn over of senior staff in the LLSCs and LSC with all the resulting uncertainties that created. In 2005 a major review was undertaken that would bring about a significant reduction in staffing and rationalisation of the number of LLSCs. So yet again the key organisation responsible for developing a stable technical education and training system was subjected to major reform and resultant disruption. The jury is still out on whether these latest proposed reforms to replace LSCs will at last create an effective set of structures and organisations that will finally manage, fund and monitor the post-16 sector and its constituent institutions in a way that will bring about a sustained improvement. Unfortunately the current recession (2008/9) will inevitably mean that colleges and other providers of technical and commercial education and training will take second place behind schools in terms of funding. I fear the compression on public sector expenditure over the next few years will have very serious and damaging impact on education and training. I think the university sector will also experience difficult times over the next few years bearing in mind the recent report (August 2009) about the questionable and variable standards of degree classifications and employers concerns about the quality of graduates entering employment. One perplexing factor currently about degree classifications is that the number of first class degrees awarded has doubled when the undergraduate population has only increased by 20%.

An Update on the Growth of Quangos and Other Unaccountable Agencies.

Whilst Blair and Brown were in opposition they stated on a number of occasions in parliament that they wished to reduce the number and power of quangos. As usual with statements from these two individuals the opposite happened as once in power the number of quangos and agencies mushroomed. Approximately 780 quangos are currently (2009) costing around £35 billion. They are staffed by unelected people who in turn may appoint unsuitable and inexperienced individuals as consultants and advisors – inevitably their cronies – advising on key issues in post-16 education and training. As has been said it takes ‘two to tango billions to quango’! If you factor in the various other agencies the number of largely unaccountable organisations rises to over 1000. Their existence is a classic example of Ministers and senior politicians creating a buffer between them and key strategic decision making process and is a protection mechanism. They can blame the chief executive of the quango or agency e.g. the recent fiasco associated with the marking of examinations results and the QCA and the rapid departure of its chief executive so avoiding any direct ministerial responsibility in the problems. Quangos are responsible for massive budgets that represent a large proportion of the annual expenditures for example on education, health, social services etc. Practically all areas of the public services are dominated by these largely unaccountable organisations and they wield immense power over these services. The leader of the opposition David Cameron has recently stated, if elected, the conservatives will reduce the number of quangos assigning many to bonfires or dustbins of history – we will wait and see if it happens this time.

The LSC movement continued to further weaken the post-16 sector and its constituent institutions after the overall negative impact of the period of management under the FEFC. Their management, planning and funding significantly was a disaster and are now being wound down and hopefully will be replaced by a more effective and efficient set of planning and funding structures. LSCs were very good at setting targets, creating league tables for colleges and private providers and ring fencing budgets that were in accord with government education and training priorities. The current programme in 2009 to improve and/or build new colleges has been a fiasco and at present approximately 100 major projects are in limbo as a result of their incompetence and inability to plan and fund this important initiative. I will provide a more reflective and considered analysis of the negative and positive consequences of both the FEFC and LSC management of the post-16 sector in a later separate article. Overall the majority of quangos and agencies have been as much use as an ashtray on a motor bike or a concrete parachute or a chocolate teapot!

Skill Levels.

Britain continued to possess poor productivity and low skill levels when compared with its main competitors. Research has shown that there is a correlation between lower productivity levels and the poor skills held by workers at all levels employment. Successive governments have attempted to tackle the problem of raising skill levels but with little success. In spite of some improvements our competitors achieved even greater levels of improvement.

Table 2 shows the qualifications held by the workforce in England in 2001 expressed as a percentage.

Table 2. Percentage of Qualifications held by the Workforce by Age and Level in England in 2001.

Age No Qualifications %
% NVQ 1 % NVQ 2 % NQV 3 % NVQ 4
16-24 16 15 23 24 24
25-49 8 10 38 29 15
50+ 21 18 14 23 24
Make 11 14 18 30 27
Female 13 15 29 18 27

Source: Labour Force Survey (LFS). 2001.

Surveys for the LFC showed that the % of employees receiving training was still relatively low e.g. only 18% of craft and related workers received training and just 15% plant and machine operatives These figures compare with a still relatively low figure of 50% of professionals – so much for Continuous Professional Training (CPD)!

Table 3 shows the productivity levels in Britain, USA and the average value for the G7.

Table 3. Productivity Levels for Workers in 2004/05
For convenience an index of 100 is assigned to Britain.

Country Index
Britain 100
France 110
America 124
G7 109

Source: Office of National Statistics and HM Treasury (2005).

The country still continues to have a poor skills profile in spite of all the government initiatives over the past few decades and the numerous skills task and review groups. The following list shows the poor standards of achievement in Britain in the mid-2000s:

  • School leavers in Britain without even the basic qualification when compared with Canada and Germany
  • Over 5 million of people of working age in Britain have no qualifications
  • 17% of adults in Britain do not have literacy skills of a 11 year old
  • Approximately 50% of the working population have very poor numeracy.

Table 3 shows international comparisons of qualification profile.

Table 3. International Comparisons of Qualification Profiles.

Country  Higher Qualifications
> Level 3
 Intermediate Qualifications
= Level 3
Lower Qualifications
< Level 3
USA 38% 49% 13%
Japan 38% 47% 16%
Germany 24% 41% 36%
France 24% 41% 36%

Source: Education at a glance. OECD. 2005.

The percentage for the higher qualifications is relatively high in Britain and has risen significantly over the last couple of decades. However this high level masks a number of important facts. The universities have diversified but many graduates are pursuing degree programmes in such subjects as media studies and other subjects whilst graduate levels in key subjects like engineering, mathematics, the physical sciences and statistics remain relatively constant and shows a decline in proportion to the total of graduate numbers. This surely springs from national political refusal to lead on and invest in new manufacturing/productive industries and the obsession with the finance and insurance sectors.

The number of graduates in science and the technologies is insufficient to satisfy the current and growing demand for engineers, mathematicians, scientists, statisticians and technologists in this country. Also the government seem to be fixated on level 2 qualifications to the neglect of level 3 and higher that are essential to increase the flow of qualified people into occupational sectors that require operatives and technicians. The government has set targets to improve level 2 skill levels by 2020 which is a ridiculously long period although of course the numbers represent perfect vision i.e. 20/20 vision but that’s about all its worth!

Most other countries have strategies in place to increase all the skill levels in much shorter time scales. Also this country has a lower percentage of graduates in the population than USA and Canada in spite of the percentage holding degrees rising from 19% in 1994 to 26% in 2004. Britain produces approximately 250,000 graduates a year whilst India and China between them produce 4 million graduates a year and in spite of much greater populations it must be remembered that they include high proportions of engineers, mathematicians, scientists and technologists. The higher qualifications profile in Britain also highlights large variations across the regions of the country with much lower rates in the NE, the Midlands and Yorkshire/Humberside regions when compared with the London area, SE and the SW. Scotland has a greater percentage of higher qualifications than England. Also 40% of disadvantaged groups like the disabled do not have any qualifications at all.

The government has set targets for the qualifications profile with a horizon of 2020 and they include the following values: 4% of workers will have no qualifications, 12% should hold qualification below level 2; 23% should hold level 2 level qualifications, 23% level 3 and 38% at level 4 or better. The plans announced by the government will involve upskilling 3.5 million adults from the lower elements of the skills spectrum from 2010. These are very ambitious targets and as always the devil will be in the detail and it is essential that providers are resourced at an adequate and sustained level. Equally important is the need to fundamentally rethink and redefine how vocational education and training is planned, funded and managed and what specific and generic skills are required for the future economy of this country.

Two recent reports (July 2009) reinforce my continuing and growing concerns about the future health of this country’ technical and scientific future. The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has announced another round of cuts in these key subjects. The Council has currently a £80 million shortfall in its budget and this has resulted in a financial crisis in university departments of science and technology. In addition because of financial problems this country has reduced funding or felt the need to withdraw from a number of major international projects e.g. the Linear Collider, the Gemini telescope and other wide ranging projects in physics, technology and astronomy. The current recession makes the already difficult financial position of the STFC even worse and the weak exchange rate between the £ and the Euro most certainly does not help the joint projects with our European partners. This announcement coincides with the Chinese publishing their 50 year plan for scientific and technological development. The plan is predicated on the essential contribution that science and technology will make in promoting stable and rapid economic development. China intends to invest about 0.6% of GDP each year in its science and technology budget over the period of the plan. The plan will be reviewed every 5 years and reinforces the commitment that China has to these subjects and equally interesting most of the investment will support applied and industrial science.

So in spite of numerous reviews and reports on skills and skill shortages/gaps the challenges facing this country are immense not only at the graduate level but at the equally important intermediate and foundation levels i.e. levels 1, 2 and 3 in order to create a balanced and well qualified workforce across all occupational sectors. Many of the reviews and proposed reforms still adopt an atavistic and questionable way of defining skills whether occupationally specific or generic. What is very clear is that the skills profile of the workforce will change dramatically in the future to match and cope with the massive transitions that will occur because of increasing global competition and the changing nature of employment. Research has shown that the demand will increase, over the next 5/10 years, for managers, the professional occupations, associated professional, skilled trades occupations, process, plant and machine operatives and technicians (see article on skills on this website).

It is important to identify the two elements that comprise the skills issue namely skills shortages and skills gaps. Skill shortages are recruitment difficulties caused by a lack of skills in the existing labour market whilst skill gaps are skill deficiencies in employers existing workforce. A research report published in 2001 by the Office of National Statistics identified that the main occupations associated with skill shortages were those which required relatively long periods of education or on-job training. Over 50% of skill shortages were in professional, associated professional and skilled trades. Skill gaps were found in service, personal services and staff in jobs that required few skills. The main cause for skill gaps was employers’ failing to train staff, followed by the inability of employers to keep up with change. Other factors were associated with recruitment problems and poor staff retention rates. These last points again indicate the urgent and essential need for effective and on-going CPD programmes within companies or in association with colleges and training providers.

In addition to skill shortages and skill gaps is the related issue of mismatches between employers’ demands for skills, providers’ supply of education and training opportunities and the demand for skills by learners and potential learners. Three distinct elements of mismatch can be identified namely:

  • Employer demand – provider supply: mismatch between employer demand for specific skills and the flow of skilled people from colleges and training providers
  • Learner aspirations – employer demand: mismatch between what learners aim to achieve through education and training and the actual skill needs of employers/employment
  • Provider supply – learner aspirations: mismatch between the programmes offered by providers and the expectations and needs of the learners.

Addressing these mismatches will be a daunting task as it requires a fundamental rethink of how employers can be more fully and equally involved in education and training policy, greatly improved labour market intelligence methods and vast improvements in the resources made available to providers. Also all the key players need to be included fully at all stages of the review, reform, implementation and monitoring process namely: employees, employers, learners, providers, and trade unions.

Skills and Foreign Workers

One of the ways that the government has tackled the skills shortages and gaps was for the country to encourage qualified trades people and professionals to come to work in this country to fill vacancies – a policy that has raised a number of ethical questions. Although there are both positives and negatives to this complex issue it does raise a number of fundamental questions many of which impact on the development of technical education and training within this country. The government can use this approach to reduce its own investment in the education and training systems and poach talented and skilled individuals from overseas. Some third world countries can ill afford to lose these qualified people bearing in mind they have invested their limited budgets to train and educate these individuals. The policy is also flawed as many of the people will return home relatively quickly and we will still be unable to provide an adequate supply of skilled people to address skill shortages and gaps. Many have returned home during the current recession (2008/9) seeing their home economies as stronger and more secure than our own. In 2000 there were approximately 1.1 million foreign national workers in the country the number having grown by 29% since 1992. During the 1990s, net losses of British professional, managerial, clerical and manual workers had been compensated for by foreign workers coming to this country. In 2000 7.9% of people in employment were foreign born and were in some of the following occupational areas:

  • 15.1% as natural scientists
  • 26.8% as health professionals
  • 13.3% in computer industries
  • 12.1% in other professional occupations
  • 12.4% in textile trades
  • 10.2% as metal working operatives.

There needs to be a carefully managed approach to recruiting workers from overseas balancing all the complex and contentious issues that recognise the consequences both positive and negative of such policies. Even accepting all the consequences of a global market and the inevitable movement of labour what must not happen is the adoption of a selfish and lazy policy in recruiting overseas workers. The country must continue to resource technical education and training at an adequate level to improve the flow and stock of qualified workers and not attempt to reduce the expenditure by poaching workers from abroad. To create a culture of dependency on overseas workers is amoral and must not be an excuse to reduce the investment level into this countries education and training system. It is also demoralising for the home population.

New Technology Institutes (NTIs)

In 2002 the DfES announced that 18 regional groups of HEIs, FE colleges and private providers would be designated New Technology Institutes (NTIs). NTIs would provide IT training for up to 10,000 people by 2005 with particular emphasis on SMEs. Programmes of study at advanced level would be offered (> level 3) e.g. NVQ level 3, Foundation degrees and progression routes to honours degree would be available to students. Students could study full-time or get release from their place of work. In addition NTIs would offer advice and support to SMEs on the effective introduction and use of new technologies and innovative business practices.

This initiative mirrors the creation of Centres of Vocational Excellence (COVEs) from the late 1990s. Initially these were to be in FE colleges that had received good inspection reports. In 2001 the DfES and LSC suggested an extension of the initiative to include: private training providers, voluntary organisations, group training arrangements of a cluster of companies and the training arms of large companies. Whether or not these initiatives will improve technical education and training remains to be seen. A number of designated COVEs have since lost their title and additional funding as a result of later poor inspection reports – another example of short termism. I would argue that to tackle the improvement of quality in technical and commercial education and training this selective and cherry picking approach will be unsuccessful. What is urgently required is a far more radical and fundamental overhaul e.g. a root and branch reform of the system as opposed to the usual incremental/tinkering approach in order to bring about a stable, relevant and high level quality provision in the technical and vocational education and training sector.

Latest developments with Industry Lead Bodies

The 73 National Training Organisations (NTOs) were developed in the mid 1990s at a slow pace and were mandated to set standards and encourage employers to train in their sectors. The government decided in 2000 that there were too many NTOs and in 2001 replaced them with Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) numbering around 25. The SSCs have been required to:

  • Reduce skills gaps and shortages
  • Improve productivity
  • Increase opportunities to promote skills and productivity across the workforce
  • Improve learning supply through involving HE (whatever that means?), apprenticeship programmes and occupational standards

The formation of the SSCs also took a relatively long time, around 2 years, and as a result caused a great deal of concern, confusion and uncertainty in the minds of employers and providers. Many commentators felt it reflected the government’s lack of understanding of the purpose and general ignorance of technical education and the need to more precisely define occupational standards.

Because of the current industrial climate and the challenges from the global market it is essential to have a strong sectorial training structure that can address such issues as increasing productivity and national competitiveness. But already fundamental concerns are being expressed about the long-term effectiveness of SSCs. Government funding is not generous and is time limited and ultimately it is expected that employers will pick up the tab – history would indicate this is a false and dangerous assumption. Also questions are already being asked about how the Councils will relate to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and other agencies in the education and training landscape. Because of the poor history of previous industrial lead bodies it will take time for the SSCs to become established, accepted by employers and effectively address the long standing problems associated with training and skills and the validity of occupational standards in this country. It is essential that they succeed and do not repeat the mistakes and replicate the poor performance and track records of the previous lead bodies.


The Review of Vocational Qualifications in 1986 led to the creation of the NCVQ and NVQs based on occupational standards developed and hence ostensibly owned by industry and set by a succession of industry lead bodies such as ILBs later called Lead Bodies (LBs), NTOs and currently SSCs. Eventually the NCVQ was merged with its equivalent for school qualifications namely Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) to create the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Sadly SCAA personnel dominated QCA and as a result technical and vocational qualifications became the responsibility of an organisation that had little commitment let alone expertise to advance the achievements of the NCVQ. The Review of Vocational Qualifications failed to rationalise and hence reduce the number of qualifications, many of them in technical and commercial areas. This failure can be highlighted by analysing the FEFC qualifications database of 1998 that showed 14,413 different qualifications being delivered by some 600 awarding bodies. The following list shows the details for 1998:

Award Type No. of Awards
GCSE: 1,598
GCE A and AS: 1,752
Access to HE: 1,155
NVQ: 1,811
GNVQ: 216
Others: 7,881

In spite of subsequent reviews the current situation continues as little has happened in rationalising the qualifications jungle and there are still too many awards and awarding bodies.

As mentioned in earlier chapters of this history the vested interests of professional and other award bearing bodies resisted earlier attempts to rationalise the qualifications system. Although, to be fair, in some cases there was evidence that these ‘other qualifications’ did satisfy the needs of employers. Unfortunately the increasing intervention and interference of successive governments in the qualification system has not brought about the rationalisation that is urgently required. Instead government meddling has brought about a large number of changes including the creation of yet more regulatory bodies and produced even more confusion and complexity to the qualifications landscape. The latest attempt is the Framework for Achievement (FfA) which is already attracting a great deal of criticism especially in regard to the proposals associated with the technical and vocational qualifications.

Vocational Qualifications

In 2001/02 the government announced its intention to raise the status of vocational options and to abolish the historical distinctions between the vocational and the academic qualifications. In order to achieve this worthy aim the following measures have been gradually introduced after 2002:

  • The development of new GCSEs in vocational subjects
  • Introduction of ‘hybrid’ GCSEs with a common core supported by optional vocational or general units
  • QCA is would develop new specifications for GCSEs in areas relating to science and geography and these were piloted from 2003
  • Removal of the label ‘vocational GCSE’
  • Retention of the six units of Intermediate and Foundation GNVQs until there are sufficient new GCSEs to provide suitable alternatives.

One issue that has always intrigued me is the way the term vocational is interpreted in the succession of reforms that have occurred over the past few decades. In the 1950s/60s/70s the vocational curriculum tended to mean practical craft skills. Vocational inevitably meant ‘work related’ in those days and was associated with making things or repairing them. At this time people who had poor literacy and numeracy skills but were good at manual and practical skills could still find jobs in the UK’s manufacturing sector. Fortunately opportunities existed albeit limited ones for these people to attend colleges or be apprentices so that they could develop their manual dexterity skills often referred to as ‘hand and eye’ skills in order to gain qualifications in the their respective crafts or trades and which would provide them with theory background.

But times have changed and a fundamental rethink of what vocational means is needed in a country that is so dependent on service based industries e.g. retailing, travel and tourism, health and social care. These require a different mix of theory and application with competence of interpersonal skills, numeracy and communication. Hand and eye skills are still important but now require very different additional skills in order to cope with the new forms of technology including those associated with IT. Perhaps in the global market there is not such a need for hand and eye skills as people would argue that the emerging economies could take over those forms of activities which I feel is a somewhat patronising and false attitude. I personally still think that there is a place for the person who possesses manual skills to work in such areas as conservation, heritage and restoration work, general maintenance of domestic properties etc. Colleges and other training providers must continue to offer provision albeit on a more limited scale than previously available in order to capitalise on these very special practical skills possessed by some individuals for skills that will still be needed. The future nature of skills whether generic or specific across most occupational areas requires constant attention, assessment and reform as technology and science advances at an ever accelerating rate and the knowledge half life associated with many subjects continues to decrease.

A vocational qualification surely should be a statement of competence relevant to work and intended to facilitate entry into, or progression in, employment, FE and training. If this definition is accepted then vocational programmes must be designed to recognise the skills, knowledge and understanding that will be required at each stage of the education and training stages and most certainly in the final work place. Vocational education and training now seems to be the accepted terminology in education and training including I presume technical and practical subjects. If one accepts this that technical and commercial subjects are subsumed in this all embracing term then clearer definitions are required to differentiate the precise sub-elements and most certainly the way education and training is developed and delivered.

Progress of New Deal in the 2000s.

In 2000 evidence was published to show that the New Deal was not achieving the government’s intentions particularly the ND for Young People. At the end of December 1999 277,800 had left the ND, 66% of them into jobs. Of those finding jobs about 73% entered sustainable jobs and the remainder into jobs lasting less than 13 weeks. Over 85% of the sustainable jobs were unsubsidised. Overall 42% of the leavers entered sustainable and unsubsidised jobs not a particularly indicator of success when you think 50% would have got a job without undertaking the ND. The report further analyses the young people who left the ND. Of the 277,800 leavers:

  • 12.4% left before having a first interview for the scheme
  • 59.4% left during the Gateway before entering employment
  • 11.5% left from one of the options (37.6% from the education and training option, 26.4% from the employer option, 16.4% from the environment task force and 17.8% from the voluntary sector option.)

In addition the quality of the provision and student support was criticised by the inspection reports. The government dismissed the findings and continued to invest heavily in the scheme in spite of continuing criticism about its contribution to job placement and creation and most certainly issues associated with value for money.

Research at the same time from the Skills Task Group showed that 47% of adult non-learners preferred to do other things than learning by attending formal classes and over 30% said they were not interested in learning. Survey after survey has highlighted the deplorable levels in literacy and numeracy in this country and this coupled with the reluctance among adults to engage in further learning continues to cause concern. Many of the jobs in the future will be in the service economies and the employees will require good communication, IT and numerical skills.

Modern Apprenticeships (MAs) 2000 to the Present.

Apprenticeship programmes continued to be reviewed and reformed and in autumn of 2000 the government consulted on the reforms to the apprenticeship framework. Some of the key points that emerged from the consultations and were subsequently adopted included:

  • The MA framework to be extended to areas where there are, as yet, no apprenticeships
  • All MA frameworks to include an NVQ, key skills and a technical certificate to provide appropriate understanding knowledge and understanding
  • In most cases technical certificates will be existing qualifications, which will retain their existing names but will be designated by the NTO as relevant to a specific MA
  • All MAs will be required to undertake some study away from the direct working environment; this could be at a college, at a learning centre or within the company
  • An Apprenticeship Diploma will be introduced to recognise achievement of all three of the MA components
  • There will be an entitlement to an MA for all young people with the necessary aptitude and enthusiasm; the LSC will have the responsibility for identifying an appropriate place
  • Special ‘pre-apprenticeship’ learning’ programmes will be introduced for young people who are not yet ready to enter a Foundation MA
  • The DfEE will work with the LSC to promote MAs to employers both public and private but there will not be any financial incentives offered to employers.

In essence one can see some positive progress in reforming apprenticeship programmes but the administrative structures are still complex and involve unnecessary bureaucracy. One of the key issues is the balance between on and off job training and how these elements are assessed. There is a distinct and important difference between work-based and work-place learning and this distinction must be clarified in the way vocational and apprenticeships programmes are operated and managed especially in terms of assessment. Work-based learning is about linking learning to the work role and comprises three inter-related components namely:

  • Structuring learning in the workplace
  • Providing appropriate on-job training/learning opportunities
  • Identifying and providing relevant off-job learning opportunities

Careful consideration is required when planning where simulation of techniques or working in realistic environments (RWEs) are used on college and training providers premises. Work placement programmes e.g. within the vocational diplomas must also be integrated into the off-job activities but it is equally important to recognise their different purposes and how the assessments for each element are weighted and recorded.

A Key Factor.

As this history has highlighted a major problem that continually blights the technical education and training system is its fragmented nature and the absence of a clear national purpose. There is now an urgent need to identify and define the key factors and how they interrelate and interact with each other to drive and manage the system in a sustained way and be effective, efficient and economic. It’s the absence of this analysis and the complex balances between them that has contributed to many of the problems in technical education and training. To date each recent government emphasised one selected factor over others and this created a system that was out of balance. Some of the critical factors are:

  • Funding – who pays – learners, government, employers – and at what proportion?
  • The roles of private vs. public sector providers in technical education and training
  • What kind of market should operate – totally free or partly controlled in order to protect subjects of strategic importance to the country
  • Degrees of freedom and choice that should be available to the student in the curriculum?
  • Supply and demand issues

Each of these factors requires a detailed, holistic and careful analysis. For example, unpacking the demand – supply factor is critical when considering skills shortages and the effectiveness of labour market intelligence and technical education. This factor is a complex mix of interactions that includes: employer demand vs. provider supply; student aspirations vs. employer demand; and provider supply vs. student aspirations. The effective management of these often competing elements is essential in order to begin to resolve many of the current problems associated with labour market intelligence and identifying skills gaps and shortages. What is urgently required is the creation of a stable and secure set of structures that will tackle the long standing problems confronting the country in regard to skill shortages and skill gaps, productivity and international competitiveness.

Other Important Reports and Relevant Developments to the mid-2000s.

In 1998 ‘Further Education’ published a report by the Education and Employment Committee.
In 2000 ‘Learning and Skills Act’ published which established Learning and Skills Councils. Created new youth service, Connexions . Reformed the inspection arrangements by extending Ofsted role and created the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI).
In 2000 ‘Learning to Succeed-Raising Standards in Post-16 Learning’ DfEE/ES published
In 2000 Foundation Degree Consultation launched; a two year programme at sub degree level. Initially there were very few programmes in technical subjects. FD is again dominated by non technical subjects like business, media studies etc.
In 2000 University for Industry (UfI) became operational. It was later badged Learndirect.
In 2001 Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) established.
In 2001 ‘Skills in England 2001 the key messages’ published by Leeds Metropolitan University (Mike Campbell).
In 2001 ‘Centres of Vocational Excellence’ consultation published.
In 2001 Connexions a new youth support service introduced; basically a reconfigured careers service.
In 2002 Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) replaced the National Training Organisations (NTOs.)
In 2002 City Academies established. They were institutions funded either by the state or individuals and companies. Recent inspection reports show that 50% have failed to achieve a satisfactory standard.
In 2002 14-19 ‘Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards’ published.
In 2002 introduction of the vocational GCSEs.
In 2003 ‘21st Century Skills – Realising our Potential’ published.
In 2003 ‘Future of Higher Education’ published.
In 2003 working party established to reform the 14-19 learning. This followed the publication of ’14-19: Opportunity and Excellence’.
In 2004 University top-up fees introduced.
In 2005 the interim Leitch Report ‘Skills in the UK: The long-term challenge’ published.
In 2005 ‘Realising the Potential’ (Foster Review) published on the future of FE College.
In 2005 ‘Skills: Getting on in business, getting on in work ‘published.
In 2005 QCA asked by the DfEE to carry out review to develop Specialised Diplomas
In 2006 National Skills Academies announced.
In 2006 ‘FE Reform: Raising Skills. Improving Life Chances’ -this is very much a Treasury driven White Paper even though it is published by the DfES – a sign of things to come?
In 2006 ‘Skills for Productivity’ DfES and DTI.
In 2008 ‘Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies’ (HoC. DIUS Committee) published.
In 2008 ‘Building Skills, Transforming Lives’ Conservatives Policy Paper No. 7 published.
In 2009 ‘Ambition 2020: World Class Skills and Jobs for the UK’ (UKCES) published.
1n 2009 ‘Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England’ (DIUS) published; similar document published in Wales by DCELLS.
In 2009 ‘Apprenticeships: Understanding the Provider Base’ published LSC.

Chapter 17 will attempt to bring this history to a conclusion and provide a review of what lessons have been learnt by successive governments.


A comprehensive book list is provided in a separate section of this website whilst other primary resource references have been given at the end  of the chapter where appropriate.

In addition a comprehensive chronology and glossary are provided in separate sections of this website which I hope will be helpful to the reader

Series Navigation<< Chapter 15 – The Developments in the 1990sChapter 17 – Concluding Remarks >>

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