Technically drifted

1 min read

​It can be difficult to keep up with government education initiatives, both for mainstream and vocational routes. For the latter, most recently it’s been the move to compress some 13,000 vocational qualifications into 15 ‘T levels’, due to commence in stages from 2020 and which will give students aged 16 to 18 a technical alternative to A levels – the ‘Engineering and Manufacturing’ T level will start in 2021. (This article was first published in Machinery, October 2018)

Not yet arrived, then, but criticism has. The Centre for Policy Studies, billed as "the home of the next generation of conservative thinking", recently unveiled its ‘Technically Gifted’ report (, penned by Toby Young, a leading light in the Free Schools movement. It’s a good, thorough, very readable, if rather depressing, analysis of vocational education initiatives across 120+ years, for this is not a new issue. On T levels, he is supportive but sees a fundamental problem.

Going through some history, failures in technical education in 1906 were followed by a failure to follow through on the 1944 Education Act to set up technical schools. Of recent efforts, he says: "Since 2010, 118 technical/vocational schools have been set up, aimed at 14- to 19-year-olds with a particular aptitude for a range of skilled occupations – 57 University Technical Colleges (UTCs), 55 studio schools and six free schools. Yet with a few notable exceptions, they have not been successful. To date, 36 of these schools have either been shut down, converted to other types of school or are earmarked for closure or conversion." He reflects that "poor performance is largely, due to the fact that they cannot select pupils, but must take all-comers", so becoming dumping grounds.

Identifying the heart of the matter, he says: "Too often, a pupil’s suitability for technical education is judged by their lack of suitability [my itals] for an academically rigorous alternative. This is a false choice and it inevitably means technical education is treated as second best."

His solution to this is that such schools select pupils according to aptitude for their specialisms at the age of 14, so eliminating the dumping ground scenario, and also that they should continue to study GCSE exams in English, maths, science, history, geography etc, so making it clear that vocational education is complementary to core academic study, not instead of it. Of course, this is unlikely to occur ahead of T levels’ introduction, Machinery is pretty certain.

In conclusion, Young says that T levels should be supported, but adds that "if you focus the entire system of education up to age 16 on purely academic subjects, trying to bolt on a system of high quality technical and vocational education at 16 will not work". Machinery very much hopes he is wrong.