Last month the Government announced its unequivocal acceptance of the recommendations made by the Independent Panel on Technical Education (also known as the Sainsbury Report). In his foreword to the Plan Nick Boles, the Minister of State for Skills, said “technical education remains the poor relation of academic education” and the Post-16 Skills Plan sets out the government’s proposals for addressing this reported imbalance.

The plan sets out a variety of changes to the implementation, regulation and provision of technical education which will have a significant impact on learners, providers and awarding organisations.

Summary of key changes

The Plan envisages that all students at the age of 16 will have to choose whether to take an academic or technical pathway. The technical pathway will be made up of a common framework of 15 broad occupational routes with each route covering college-based and employment-based education. Each of these routes will focus on skilled occupations where there is a substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills and occupations will be grouped together where there are shared requirements. For example, one of the proposed routes is Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care which will cover typical job roles which include a conservationist, farmer and agricultural technician. Each route will also include a ‘common core’ which includes English, maths and digital skills.

The reforms are planned to be phased in progressively with a small number of “pathfinder” routes being delivered in September 2019 and all 15 technical routes being made available by 2022.

One of the most significant proposed changes to come from this initiative is that each of the 15 technical routes will be delivered by a single awarding organisation respectively. This is to address what the Government refers to as the "'race to the bottom’ in which awarding organisations compete to offer qualifications which are easier to pass and therefore of lower value”. The Government claims this will also reduce confusion amongst students and parents due to the number of qualifications currently on offer in the vocational sector. The intention is that the Government will grant exclusive licences for the development of each of these technical routes following a competitive bidding process.

The Government’s plan also emphasises the need to involve employers in the technical training and apprenticeship process with employer-designed standards being put at the heart of the new system of technical education. Moreover, under these proposals every 16-18 year old student following a two-year college-based technical education programme will be entitled to a high quality and structured work placement.

In April 2018 the Institute for Apprenticeships will become the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The Institute’s remit is also increasing as it will encompass all of technical education at Levels 2 to 5. The Institute will be responsible for assuring standards and bringing relevant experts together to agree the technical knowledge, practical skills and behaviours to be acquired in each route for both apprenticeships and college-based provisions.

Easier said than done?

The Department for Education has said that there is growing support from the education sector in respect of these proposals and has published a selection of the ‘supportive comments’ it has received.[1] However, as well as organisations feeling encouraged by the focus on providing comprehensive vocational pathways there are also numerous comments on the amount of work still to be done and the areas that are lacking clarification. Some commentators have said that it is unclear how the Institute of Apprenticeships will work alongside the current regulator Ofqual and whether the new Institute’s remit could lead to excessive regulatory burden in the technical education sector. The current proposals include reference to ‘bridging provisions’ for when students want to move between an academic and technical route, or vice versa, but very little information has been provided on how these provisions would work in practice and how students would be supported when changing their options.

Concerns have also been raised in relation to having a single qualification provider for technical routes with organisations questioning whether this would truly raise competition in the market or whether conversely it will lead to smaller niche awarding organisations being unable to compete with the larger providers. Ofqual has already announced that it will remove 2,000 qualifications from its register that have not been awarded for at least two years.

The increased role of employers has been praised but at the same time it has been acknowledged that the success of this approach requires employer co-operation and enthusiasm, which could be difficult for the Government to manage and influence. There will also be substantial impacts on budgeting, which the Plan itself accepts will need to be explored further. In relation to finding 250,000 work placements the independent panel estimates this could involve an uplift to each student’s base rate of around £500 per placement.

There are also more general concerns in terms of whether at 16 students are ready to make a decision to pursue a purely academic or technical path, with some arguing for a third ‘mixed’ option. We will also have to wait and see whether the new vocational paths can generate enough interest amongst students and parents or whether students choose to stick to the more well-known and well-established routes.

A number of legal issues are posed by the proposed reforms, which we will publish updates on as matters progress.



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Emma Dowden-Teale

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Richard Marke


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William Garnett

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Posted on 24/08/2016 in Legal Updates

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