BLOG: Higher Ambitions (Day 2 sessions)

Ian Nash on the second day of the Sutton Trust-Pearson Higher Ambitions Summit, including keynote speeches from Professor Alison Wolf and Sir Michael Barber.

Leading educationists at the Higher Ambitions Summit called for a cross-party political consensus aimed at creating a world-class apprenticeship system they say has eluded the UK for at least four decades.

Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College, London, said the priority had to start by addressing labour market needs: “It’s the labour market context in which policy is being made and will determine what will be achieved. The single most important thing going on in education now is the apprenticeship reform programme. It is so important that it’s not constantly changed and as a chance to bed down.”

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BLOG: Higher Ambitions Summit (afternoon sessions)

More than 200 further education colleges and universities are already offering technical degrees, according to Matthew Hancock, Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, in what he described as “the biggest skills revolution for decades.”

Addressing the Sutton Trust-Pearson Higher Ambitions Summit, he insisted that the reforms proposed by Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, for new technical degrees were already taking shape as part of the Coalition Government reforms including new Technical Awards and a Tech Bacc.

Hancock described the reforms as central to a concerted effort to cut youth unemployment which had risen by 40% to over one million in the decade from 2004 and had seen its first drop, by 135,000 over the past year. “The number of young people claiming benefits has also fallen for 23 successive months,” he stated.

In a summit session on employer engagement and the pursuit of real apprenticeships for all, there were widespread appeals for a flexible approach to the level of support and time spend completing an apprenticeship. The Summit heard of the German experience from Andrea Bodner, Training Manager of Webasto, that two and a half to three years was standard. But employers with successful track records in the UK argued that they could be completed in anything from 12 months to four years, depending on the level of previous skills education and training.

Clare Paul, Head of Entry Level Talent at the BBC described how the corporation had shifted focus from graduate entry  to apprenticeships with remarkable success at every level to higher apprentices. While degree level apprenticeships took at least three years, creative apprenticeships could be completed in one year, she said. “It depends on the complexity of the job and the nature of the environment.”

Frank McLoughlin, Principal of City and Islington College, said the problem of understanding the time required stemmed from the way the view of apprenticeships had been distorted, “The problem is that apprenticeships became a course, not a job as it used to be seen in the 1970s. The key point is that it should be seen as a job with full training and expectation that you will stay in employment afterwards.”

The general concerns over training and apprenticeships were voiced by Andreas Schleicher, Director  of Education and Skills at the OECD, who said it was very hard to get a good vocational skills system. “Degrees don’t mean everything. The UK has unemployed graduates while employers can’t find the skills they need. We need people for what they can do rather than what they know. How do you make skills everybody’s business? Who benefits and who pays?”

Andreas Schleicher went on to stress the importance of engaging a wide range of employers, particularly in relation to careers guidance; “You need people from the real world providing careers guidance.

“You need an independent and comprehensive guidance profession not based in schools. Such information would help people make decisions.  The need is to develop the skills of the whole population, not just concentrating on schools and young people. We are moving from stacking up qualifications to skills-orientate learning often gained in the workplace but not accounted for in qualifications.”

BLOG: Higher Ambitions Summit (morning sessions)

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, unveiled plans for new “Gold Standard” technical degrees for the “forgotten 50%” of young people when he addressed the Sutton Trust-Pearson Higher Ambition Summit.

Technical BAs will be created jointly by universities and industry, he said, “For the first time, people will be able to progress further, earn while they learn at university with a route to technical and professional employment.”

Expansion would not be at the cost of academic degrees nor would a Labour Government restore the polytechnics to provide them. Instead they want as many universities as possible to come forward. “We will not make the policy mistake of splitting universities into two types.”

Stressing the need for routes to academic and vocational excellence of equal merit, he said: “Do we want one nation where everybody has opportunities or two national where half don’t? For too long we have believed there is only one route to success.” There should also be a direct route from apprenticeships to university or there would not be equal status for vocational education.

A Labour Government would give greater control over the choice of courses locally to Local Enterprise Partnerships by devolving money down from central government and giving greater control to business.

Miliband’s proposal for a BA, which effectively leads on from the proposed Labour Tech Bacc, was welcomed by participants but they cautioned him not to see it as a route exclusively for the forgotten 50%. Too many young people were already on inappropriate academic courses and would do far better doing technical degrees, they said.

He was also urged not to lose sight of existing strong vocational routes. Frank McLoughlin, Principal of City and Islington College and chair of the recent national inquiry into adult vocational education, said: “At our colleges last year we sent 1,408 people to university from vocational programmes, particularly BTEC.”

The strength of BTEC was often underplayed, according to Rod Bristow, President of Pearson. “As entry to A-level is beginning to flat-line, entry to BTECs continue to grow,” he said. Nor should the value of the BTEC National Diploma – the equivalent of a Foundation Degree – be underestimated. He spoke of a need to look closely at operations in countries such as Singapore which had created a series of “bridges and ladders” across the vocational and academic pathways at various stages in a person’s life.

David Hall, Acting Chairman of the Sutton Trust, also reminded people of the need to win teachers over. Pointing to the latest Ipsos MORI survey for the Trust, he said: “More than half of young people say they are interested in considering an apprenticeships rather than university if it is in a job they want to do, but only a third say their teachers have discussed it with them.”

Similar research for the Sutton Trust also showed a high prejudice against the vocational route over degrees .