A Race to the Bottom? Further Education in England

Hilary Steedman highlights the need for a renewed technical and vocational education offer for England.

In 2013, the OECD published a critical survey of the technical and vocational education offer for 16-18 year olds in England. They strongly criticised the system of technical and vocational qualification awards in England. They highlighted that a large number of awarding bodies with a strong commercial interest in marketing their awards, competed to test and certificate students in colleges and those with other education providers. This arrangement was accused of damaging technical and vocational education by bringing about a ‘race to the bottom’.

Colleges, paid by the examination results of their students, were inclined to choose qualifications that were easy to pass, undermining standards over time. As more and more 16-18 year olds stayed on in school and college to work for TVET qualifications, the potential market grew, and the number of awarding bodies and qualifications multiplied – over 9,000 are listed as approved for funding on the Government’s Section 96 website. The more traditional high-quality qualifications lost ground as students and colleges chose to aim for less ambitious – and easier – awards.

Not only were standards undermined but, as the OECD pointed out, ‘the proliferation of competing qualifications undermines the labour market value of vocational qualifications’. Employers found it difficult to understand the value of qualifications gained by those applying for jobs and matching skills to skill needs – a vital component of productivity – was made much harder. The difficulties created by the plethora of qualifications were compounded by sweeping repeated changes of name – who remembers GNVQs?

Early this century, millions were spent chopping up technical and vocational qualifications into smaller chunks, to create what was called a Qualifications and Credit Framework. This has now been quietly abandoned by OfQual, the government body charged with the oversight of qualifications.

By stark contrast, countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany, which have far higher productivity levels than the UK, have a stable, well-understood nomenclature for their technical and vocational qualifications. In France, the State guarantees the standard, while in Germany, employer organisations, the Chambers of Commerce, are responsible for apprenticeship examinations and awards.

In July 2016, action to rationalise this absurd situation was finally promised in the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan in the form of a single franchise for the 15 technical and vocational education routes that the government plans for 16-18 year olds.

This means that a single awarding body would be commissioned to provide examinations and awards for a given technical/vocational route. Competition would be confined to competition for the right to the franchise.

Finally, a long overdue Bill is now before Parliament: the Technical and Further Education Bill, which establishes a new body, the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education (IfA&TE), with powers to award a single franchise for technical and vocational qualifications.

The Bill makes provision for the IfA&TE to operate a single franchise by allowing the IFA to adopt and approve technical qualifications. Whether or not to do so appears (according to Sections A2DA and A21A), to be at the discretion of the IfA&TE and subject to the agreement of the copyright holders – presumably the Awarding Bodies. As the text stands, this may or may not result in a single franchise being awarded with respect to technical qualifications.

We must hope that MPs appreciate the fundamental importance of the single franchise for raising and maintaining standards of technical and vocational education. The IfA&TE must not be allowed to neglect this vital change. There is a good case for strengthening this Section of the Bill to ensure that the single franchise proposed by the Sainsbury Report and approved in the Government’s Post-16 Skills plan becomes mandatory for all technical and vocational qualifications.