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Building a Robust Technical Education System


Paul Grainger, Centre for Education and Work Enterprise Lead, at UCL Institute of Education, discusses the urgent need for a generation of skilled and qualified employees…

While cries of ‘productivity’ echo around the economic news bulletins, little attention is paid to those institutions crucial to raising the skills levels of our workforce. Few MPs or policy advisors attended a Further Education College or Training Provider: and it shows!

Recently however the loom of Brexit has shattered Westminster complacency and technical education is being addressed nationally and more importantly, in the context of a slow and reluctant devolution, regionally. We have seen the Productivity Plan (2015), the Sainsbury Report (2016) and Skills Plan (2016) and the Industrial Strategy (2017), all of which confirm Further Education as crucial to our economic future.

Last week a National Conference, but with a regional focus, suitably located in Leeds, addressed two issues in the productivity debate. How can employers cross the boundary into education, and so help create a generation of skilled and qualified employees: and how can we scrutinise local economic trends to anticipate, and provide, the expertise necessary to support burgeoning regional economies? The conference, Building a robust technical education system through regional and national employer-provider partnerships, supported by the Education and Training Foundation and hosted at Leeds City College, drew upon research by UCL Institute of Education into regional skills systems. Excellent technical education, the research demonstrates, is best delivered by lecturers who are expert both in their occupational profession and as teachers. To retain credibility with students, such teachers will come from the area of employment within which the technical education sits. Such teachers also need to continually interact with their trade or profession in the same way as teachers in academia need to keep themselves abreast of research.

What becomes clear is that effective technical and professional education can only be achieved by collaboration between employers and colleges. This is now accepted by policy makers, and may be seen as a ‘settlement’ in our quest for an effective skills system. The conference explored collaborative working, particularly for regional skills development at higher levels. UCL found that while employers are concerned about the time and cost of such activity, there are real benefits to them in ensuring a suitably skilled work-force, raising their profile and standing in the community and being located within a successful economic system. Many employers rely upon a network of competence to run their businesses. By engaging with colleges they can enhance local skills sets. This was encapsulated by the leader of Trafford Council, and Skills Lead for Manchester, Sean Anstee, who described how training providers and employers were becoming more aligned through strong partnership models in Greater Manchester: We’re always switched on and listening to what our companies are saying to us… working together the Northern Powerhouse will be what we want it to be.” Jenny Holloway, CEO Fashion Enter, who runs a busy, state of the art fashion business in a factory which also houses a Stitching Academy and high level apprentices, is quite clear: education is not just qualification attainment –the qualifications have to be meaningful”.

(Image right: Jenny Holloway CEO of Fashion Enter at the National Conference with Neil Fletcher, Honorary Research Associate UCL)

Patterns of employment, self-employment, networked employment are changing. In the context of increasingly complex career patterns and proliferation of technical skills, Julie Gibbings, of the Education and Training Foundation, described a pilot of ‘Master Technicians’. One student commented: “I think if we were to have more Master Technicians it would give me even more insight into different sectors within the IT industry.” This change in the paradigm of employment was emphasised by Pauline Tamblyn, of Creative and Cultural Skills, who described a highly qualified workforce, many freelance, who support 65,000 creative businesses in an industry growing at five times the national average. It is an area, she says, where you make a job, not take a job”. This could be a slogan for the future economy. Regional economies differ: regional cultures support different types of employment. Getting networks and partnerships right is vital. Jo Sadler quoted the Heseltine Institute on Liverpool, The mood music across the city region is much improved and the leadership more confident and constructive than in the past. Nevertheless it is also recognised that levels of productivity, skills, employment and firm creation are too low.”

The models developed at UCL demonstrate that economic regeneration and growth are best developed from within. A region is successful if it can develop a ‘high skills eco-system’. Further Education is central to such a system. Highly skilled employment brings prosperity. So where, in our education system as presently constructed, is the incentive to develop regionally relevant high level skills? In the words of Neil Fletcher, of UCL, there is “Insufficiently articulated local labour market demand and skills needs”. UK PLC could do better.

By Paul Grainger, Centre for Post-14 Education and Work, February 2018


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