The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 – an opportunity of a generation?

By Paul Kessell-Holland, National Head of Curriculum Design Projects

It could probably be said that further and technical education is on the cusp of a remarkable transformation in England.

Some of this is driven by previous change, most notably the introduction of T Levels. But much of this potential transformation is captured in the new Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022.

There may be reasons for some to challenge, check the small print and occasionally raise direct objections. But on the whole, the Act represents a genuine attempt to move forward opportunities for tens of thousands of young people and adults, address social issues through education and support the economy across the board.

The publicly stated aim of the Secretary of State that T Levels should become as well known and respected as A Levels perhaps tells us a lot about the direction of travel and it is one to welcome.

Some things in the Act, which was granted royal assent on 28 April, might raise an eyebrow for those of us in the sector with a response of ‘but surely everyone does that anyway?’ The legal requirement to engage in skills planning with local employers is a case in point.

Working with employers

Every college I have ever worked in was busily doing exactly that for at least the past decade, not least because it is how colleges (and independent training providers) grow their apprenticeship market.

Supporting those learners who already have clear career plans, which are likely to involve them leaving their hometown, and advising those less sure about employment and opportunity on their doorstep, is challenging. Achieving that balance is even harder for providers in areas with multi-generational issues of unemployment and disadvantage.

We can talk all we want about expecting employers and colleges to work in partnership to build a plan to put local people in local jobs. Addressing deeply entrenched inequalities across our society is a critical part of the solution. Those jobs do need to be there in the first place although that is, understandably, outside the remit of the Act.

However, the skills planning element of the Act does signal intent from the heart of government that it is critical to our economy. Having a central expectation and process is no bad thing provided it doesn’t become unwieldy as a result.

Sustainability

Another positive is the significant shift in government expectations on the environment. On pretty much every level from reducing the carbon footprint of an ageing sector’s building to embedding sustainability principles into existing curriculum and the development of new curriculum and qualifications to supporting the essential growth of green jobs and a cleaner economy, there is much to be welcomed.

There have been pockets of excellence in these areas for many years often driven by individuals or small teams determined to do the right thing rather than as a result of systemic change. All too often these have foundered against the harsh financial realities of running a college or training provider. A central approach to tackling these issues is the only way we are likely to drive the changes we need in our society for the future of us all.

STEM learning

The other thing that is potentially of real significance is further trying to improve the access young people have to technical education providers during their school years. Schools will now be required to ensure that their pupils meet providers of technical education routes such as apprenticeships, T Levels or traineeships, opening their eyes to a wide range of careers.

There have been many initiatives delivered in schools for the past decades targeting an increase in pupils retaining STEM subjects through science clubs and other innovative and powerful activities. They are slowly but surely changing the narrative for young people around careers in scientific and engineering disciplines and moving the balance of inequality in the right direction, for example, with positive change in almost all areas of female participation in STEM disciplines.

However, by comparison, the necessary work to help young people understand how to use this ‘new’ scientific ambition in a technical career is usually missing. This is understandable – schools are measured on success and progression rates that historically ignore those who move on to colleges or apprenticeships after their GCSEs. The average schoolteacher is expert in many things but the options for their learners in technical qualifications is not usually one of them.

Alongside that, we need a strong pipeline of young people, starting in Key Stage 3, having exposure to the myriad careers and well paid jobs that our country so desperately needs them to consider, so they are fully aware of their options and to increase the likelihood of them choosing technical and vocational learning at 16 .

Credible alternative

After a narrative for 30 years of ‘university or bust’ it will be hard to change the picture to ensure there is an understanding of the fantastic opportunities for young people within technical and vocational education which are absolutely not ‘second class choices’ or for those who in some way fail at school.

Long gone are the days of young people turning up at the factory gates at 16 with no qualifications and hoping that someone will give them a job. Technical and vocational routes can lead to competitive well paid careers and attaining a degree or masters qualification, chartered status and significant professional recognition. Anything at all that helps teachers, pupils, parents and schools understand this better is to be welcomed – whether it is set out as a carrot or stick.

In all, there is a real sense of ambition around this Act. There’s an ambition to change the narrative and deliver qualifications and work ready young people and adults into an economy that really needs them.

There is a commitment to help foster growth in economically deprived areas and support the reskilling and upskilling of a workforce across our nation that is in need of a shot in the arm – post Covid, post Brexit, and through whatever turbulent times may lie in wait over the next few years.

It isn’t going to be easy. Changing hearts and minds takes time and it takes some big decisions on funding at a time when every government department is (to a degree correctly) being challenged about every penny it spends.

We can all see that investing in education is a long term proposition but one that repays handsome dividends. Finally, for the first time in a generation, that investment includes further, technical and vocational education in a meaningful and, hopefully, transformational way.

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