Here We Go Again!

The government has announced a new Industrial Strategy to bolster the country’s manufacturing, engineering and technology (MET sector) and a reconfigured technical education system). The key elements of the proposed technical education system include:

ü  Simplifying the range of technical and vocational qualifications currently on offer

ü  Creating an easier means of finding and applying for technical courses possibly similar to the UCAS system

ü  Creating new Institutes of Technology to deliver higher level technical education throughout the UK

ü  Encouraging people to take up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills

ü  Increasing the number of mathematics schools across the country

ü  Ensuring universal basic numeracy

ü  Identifying and addressing sector-specific skills gaps

ü  Embedding the concept of lifelong learning

ü  Creating wider opportunities for re-training throughout a person’s career

ü  Involvement from industry and employers to shape what technical qualifications and curriculum should deliver

ü  Improving the quality of the offering for lower level technical qualifications

ü  Improving provision for higher level technical qualifications

ü  Helping students make informed choices about career paths.

As the title says we have heard this before over many decades with little or no improvement to technical education and training. Innumerable reviews, pilots, schemes and the MSC programmes/schemes over the past decades have come and gone without any real impact. Major reviews such as the Vocational Qualification Review (DeVille, April 1986), numerous proposals to reduce the number of qualifications and programmes and initiatives such as CPVE, NVQs, TVEI, GNVQs, Vocational Diplomas, Modern Apprenticeships, and Graduate Apprenticeships et al are a few examples. Over the years we have heard these worthy intentions but sadly it turned out to be empty rhetoric and as a result violated our hopes and expectations

Over the decades as this website and my other site  highlight the continued neglect of the technical education system and FE colleges. The basic social hostility to technical/practical subjects, the second class perception of the subjects and the colleges when compared with the schools and university sectors has always been a concerning factor. The FE sector and its provision have always experienced inadequate funding which has brought about staff redundancies and closure of technical departments, or mergers and downsizing. Pressure was put on college principals to close/downsize practical based departments e.g. engineering, construction – I experienced this first hand in the 1990s. Universities also have closed science, mathematics and engineering related departments because of declining enrolments.

The country continues to decline in international surveys assessing achievement levels of science, mathematics and the OECD/PISA has recently (2017) recorded that the country is ranked 16th out of the 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications. Other reports by the OECD shows the level of science and mathematical ability again continues to decrease when compared with other countries. Teacher and student numbers in schools and colleges continue to decline in science, mathematics and technical subjects. The number of students pursuing teacher training in subjects like Mathematics, Physics and Technology continues to decline and because of financial cuts many staff teaching technical subjects have resigned or taken early retirement. As a result closures of departments in science, mathematics and technical subjects also continue to be merged, downsized or closed in universities and colleges. The current regime of austerity has accelerated these declines.  

One fact that is never mentioned by the government is that these proposals to reinvent the technical education system and reinvigorate the industrial strategy will take at least a generation as training teachers and changing the negative attitudes of the population to practical and technical disciplines will take a long time. It will also require sustained long term and adequate funding – approaches this country is not renowned for – UK short termism reigns!

There are many other issues that reflect the reason why the state of technical, scientific and mathematical subjects in the educational system is in such a dire state e.g. teacher training, and yet successive governments ignore the realities of the situation. The following list highlights further problems currently associated with technical education, manufacturing and industry:

·         Science related professions have 50% job vacancies and medical related professions 10%

·         A recent survey by the Bridge Group reported:  economically, in terms of incomes, and educationally, in terms of opportunities, the UK is now the most unequal country in Europe.

·         A recent survey on the results of students undertaking work experience and visits to scientifically/manufacturing based industries highlighted the basic negative attitude to scientific and practical subjects.  Follow up research showed that the experience had little impact on the students namely only 8.7% subsequently took up further study/employment in biological subjects, 5% physics, 12% mathematics and 7.5% chemistry.

·         Productivity rates continue to decline in industry and are now one of the lowest in Europe and the rest of the developed world.

·         Skill shortages continue in many trades and professions in spite of employing immigrants – and clearly skill gaps and shortages will increase following the UK exit from the EU.

I will return to these proposals over the next few years but already fear they will mirror the previous attempts to address these critically important topics.

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