Thursday 18 August 2016 7:00 pm

We've failed generations of young people by sidelining technical education

Kirstie Donnelly MBE is managing director City & Guilds Group, and was a commissioner on Labour’s Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning.

"I hope that technical education will be given in the future a far higher status in educational circles than it has had in the past,” commented an MP during a debate on an education bill.

That statement could have come any time in the past century. In fact, it was made by Edward Cobb MP during the second reading of a bill in 1944. The bill became the Butler Act, which paved the way for an essentially two-pronged schools system where state-educated pupils either went to grammar schools or secondary moderns.

Today, there are few subjects that get Britons more riled up than education and, specifically, grammar schools. Given the hot air around the news that the government might lift the ban on the creation of new grammars, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a done deal.

But Theresa May is right to look again at the Butler Act, irrespective of the grammar school angle, because at its heart were sound principles to underpin a fair education infrastructure to deliver social mobility. The intention was for a truly tripartite system, with the third option being a nationwide network of high-quality Technical Schools. The tragedy was that few were ever established and they never became more than a fringe player.

Read more: School of hard knocks: How to cut the soaring cost of private education

Since then we’ve squandered seven decades arguing about how to improve secondary education for the majority. Yet we’ve ignored the bigger elephant in the room: that technical education is equally valuable, can be better suited to many, and is ultimately critical for the UK to compete globally.

We can’t afford to ignore this anymore. It’s great news for many young people that, following yesterday’s A-Level results, record numbers have secured places at university, but too many others are still not receiving an education that is suitable for them. And yes, youth unemployment has fallen, but it’s still high – 865,000 as of May. Equally, employers repeatedly raise concern about skills gaps among school-leavers and a lack of readiness for employment. With it likely to become harder for businesses to recruit skilled workers from Europe, complacency is not an option. We need a sustainable version of what should have been the output of the Butler Act.

Crucially, young people at 14 or 16 should have the opportunity to experience different options and work out what suits them. In the modern version of Butler, they could move seamlessly between academic and professional and technical pathways, between GCSEs and A-Levels, and from technical programmes to university, apprenticeships or other work-based study programmes.

At City & Guilds we are already working towards making this a reality. Two years ago the first students enrolled on the City & Guilds TechBac, a curriculum for 14 to 19 year olds developed with employers in sectors suffering from skills gaps. Students can study a technical pathway in one of 13 subjects, with integrated work experience and on-the-job training. The pathways are recognised by UCAS, meaning higher education is not closed off.

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Since 1944 some progress has been made, with 39 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) now open. These colleges, championed by Lord Baker, are arguably closest to the modern embodiment of what was promised in 1944. Yet these technical alternatives remain a peripheral part of the secondary education system and, worryingly, are too often positioned as for the “less gifted and talented”.

How many of yesterday’s A-Level results students were advised to consider apprenticeships rather than university? How many know they could undertake technical qualifications alongside GCSEs?

Research City & Guilds will publish next week makes clear that young people around the country receive advice that often fails to show them what the future jobs market will look like or how they can achieve their aspirations. The one-size-fits-all academic mania is still the main dish of the day, yet it causes indigestion for many.

The Prime Minister has a chance to right an historic wrong. The government’s Post-16 Skills Plan was published last month, recognising that professional and technical education should be seen as a credible choice, alongside A-Levels. But the devil will be in the detail – if it forces out a stark two-track choice rather than creating truly integrated progression pathways it will have missed the point.

Read more: Apprenticeships: Show young people the real value

So while there is more noise around the value of professional and technical education, I’m not relaxing yet! We’ve been down this road before, including when Labour launched 14-19 Diplomas – only for the coalition government to scrap them a few years later after huge investment across the sector.

We don’t yet know how committed the government is to reversing the ban on new grammar schools. In many ways it’s a distraction and diversion. Instead, they should focus on the many teenagers leaving school with poor educational attainment and narrow career horizons, and the many employers lamenting the lost opportunity for addressing the mismatch of what is taught, how, and to what end.

Instead of rehashing old arguments, the government should deliver the missed opportunity from that landmark 1944 Act and provide every teenager with a real choice of high quality technical education that starts them on the career ladder. As Cobb said, it’s “a matter of vital interest”.

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