Preparing for technical education routes in England

Newsletter articles

20 Dec 2017

Employment Studies Issue 26

Joy WilliamsJoy Williams, Research Fellow

IES is at the forefront of policy research providing important evidence on the impact of technical education policy reforms. Here we examine some of our recent research in this area.

Recent policy developments

Published in 2016, the Post-16 Skills Plan[1] built on successive reviews to reform and strengthen the provision of technical education in England. These reviews have aimed to ensure that technical education provides the knowledge, skills and behaviour that employers require, thereby making ‘T-Levels’ (the new qualifications, being introduced from 2020) a more valuable route for young people to pursue.

The line of reviews that trace to the current reforms arguably began with the Wolf Report[2] which identified shortcomings in the education system for 16-19 year olds and recommended the removal of low-quality vocational qualifications from the education and training system. This was followed by the Richard Review[3], which recommended a route and branch review of apprenticeships and identified the mechanisms to reform apprenticeships.

Preparing for technical education routes in England

Since then, employer ownership has become a central theme of apprenticeship policy in England and is viewed as the means to achieve a more robust linkage between the skills required by the labour market and the content of apprenticeships. Apprenticeship Trailblazers were phased in from October 2013, creating an employer-owned set of new Apprenticeship Standards. Subsequently, the Apprenticeship Levy was announced in the 2015 Summer Budget and introduced in April 2017.

IES evaluations and policy research

IES conducted the process evaluation of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers, looking at the facilitation of employer networks, views on the outgoing Apprenticeship Frameworks and how the new Apprenticeship Standards were created[4]. The research highlighted the possibility that, with a lack of transferability between Standards, there was a risk of apprenticeships becoming too narrow and not supporting movement between job roles and sectors.

The Sainsbury Review[5] continued the reforms. Sainsbury had particular concerns for quality, parity of esteem and enabling movement between vocational and academic modes with recommendations including, amongst others, clear routes from levels 2/3 to levels 4/5 and beyond and common frameworks across a total of 15 apprenticeships and college-based routes. The Sainsbury Review recommendations, calling for the simplification of technical education along with integrated standards for both college- and employment-based delivery modes, represent a dialling-back of some of these reforms.

The response in the Post-16 Skills Plan was to accept these recommendations ‘unequivocally’ (where that was possible within existing budgets) and to prepare for technical education reforms.

IES supported the Department for Education (DfE) with formative research that helped to set out the occupational routes, mapping the 15 technical routes and pathways. This comprised an exercise to map Apprenticeship Standards, professional qualifications, job content and job titles; involving employers, employer bodies and professional membership organisations. This helped to identify the occupations that routes should cover and provided a more distinct definition than those generated by the Apprenticeship Trailblazers. These will be used by employer panels, working with the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

IES also explored international occupational standards for DfE to inform developments towards T-Levels[6]. This aimed to understand how other countries configure their qualification standards and particularly the knowledge, skills and behaviours imparted through the qualifications, in order to help the new employer panels in their work.

The Sainsbury Review recommended a ‘transition year’ and this concept was therefore taken up in the Post-16 Skills Plan. This envisaged that young people not yet ready to start Level 2 qualifications at age 16 could undertake a transition period to prepare them for further study or employment. In 2017, IES conducted research for DfE looking at what works in supporting 16-17 year-olds who do not achieve five GCSE passes at grade A*-C[7].

For this research, our team conducted case studies with 20 institutions, including general further education colleges, sixth form colleges and other training providers. The report identified how student progress is enabled, by analysing the planning, content and activities that are conducted by institutions. Case studies highlighted a number of lessons for delivery that can be used by 16-19 providers and the government when considering future transition period policy. The main lesson was that post-16 providers should aim to accurately identify young people’s needs, interests and level of competence, and provide a flexible curriculum, developing over time through small steps to meet these needs.

Most recently, IES, along with colleagues at the International Centre for Guidance Studies (iCeGs), is conducting research into another key technical education reform – work placements. The provision of high quality, substantial work placements was an integral part of the reforms in the Post-16 Skills Plan. The new T-Levels will entitle every 16- to 19-year-old learner undertaking a college-based technical education route to a high-quality and substantial work placement – up to 250,000 17-year-olds once rolled out nationally. DfE is piloting an extended work placement scheme with selected providers in England. IES and iCeGs are evaluating the pilot in order to test how work placements work in different contexts and highlight lessons before a full, national roll-out.

The evaluation will assess different ways of sourcing and implementing work placements as well as the model of the placement (for example, block or day release); the preparation of the learner; and the monitoring and management of the placement. We will also be looking at other factors such as the support model, employer engagement brokerage, and learner background. The resulting evidence will be crucial for the sector as a step-change will need to be made in both the format and the scale of the work placements delivered.

Along with the research for DfE, IES has also recently worked with the Education and Training Foundation to conduct case study research with further education colleges that employ staff in advanced practitioner-type roles (publication forthcoming). This range of case study research with post-16 education providers has provided IES researchers with a great opportunity to see the impacts of recent government policy decisions on the ground. When we have talked to teaching staff and leaders, their passion to support their learners is obvious, as is their commitment to make these reforms work in order to provide the best route into further education and employment. IES is committed to continuing to provide robust, independent research evidence to policy decision-makers during this time of transformation within the post-16 sector. We aim to honestly represent the views of those ‘on the ground’ who are delivering and being impacted by the changes; be they employers, teaching staff, leaders or learners.

[1] BIS, DfE (2016), Post-16 Skills Plan, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Education

[2] DfE (2011), Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf report, Department for Education

[3] Richard D (2012), The Richard Review of Apprenticeships, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

[4] Newton B, Miller L, Williams J, Buzzeo J, Hinks R (2015), Process evaluation of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers: Final report, BIS research paper 256, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

[5] BIS, DfE (2016b), Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Education

[6] Newton B, Everett C, Cotton J (2017), Investigation into post-16 occupational standards in international technical education, Research Report 691, Department for Education

[7] Williams J, Hadjivassiliou K, Marvell R, Green M, Newton B (2017), Effective curriculum practice at below Level 2 for 16/17 year olds, Department for Education