The future for education and skills: the three 'A's

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2010

Employment Studies Issue 12

Jim Hillage, Director of Research

Jim HillageFor many years the focus of education policy was very firmly on the so-called three 'R's: reading, writing and arithmetic. Looking ahead, the emerging policy focus of the coalition government in the area of education and skills seems to be on the three 'A's: academies, apprenticeships, and austerity.



Many of the early education policy pronouncements have been about the establishment of a new tranche of academies – ie self-governed schools within the State sector. Although they are sometimes described as ‘free’, they still have to follow the national curriculum and conform to national standards. It is therefore unclear what effect they may have on attainment, and the international evidence on their impact is mixed. Accompanying the proposals on academies has been an increased emphasis on academic standards in schools, for example with the introduction of international GCSEs, the dropping of academic diplomas, and the scaling down of support for existing vocational diplomas.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the new government will go ahead with raising to 18 the age at which young people have to take part in formal education or training – which was the previous government’s ‘big idea’ for cutting the number of young people not in employment education or training (so-called NEETs).


Apprenticeships have also featured strongly in new policy announcements, with plans to divert funds from Train to Gain to increase the number of available apprenticeship places by 50,000. The key question here is whether employers will get engaged in sufficient numbers, particularly as many public sector employers (where apprenticeships have been growing in recent years) are having to scale back their budgets considerably.

The apparent focus on schools on the one hand and apprenticeships on the other suggests that young people will increasingly face a choice between an academic or a vocational route at age 16. The ‘third way’ envisaged by Tomlinson in his 2004 report on the future of the education and training curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds[1], and partly filled by diplomas, is looking less and less like a viable alternative pathway. Unless the idea of reviving the technical college option proposed by Lord Baker gathers steam, young people look like being forced to choose between an academic and vocational dichotomy. To make such a choice in an informed way, it is clear from IES and other research that they will need high-quality information and advice from an effective careers education and support service. However, it is not clear that this is currently provided through the Connexions service.


The underlying theme that will underpin much of the development of policy in this area is austerity. While some of the budget covering compulsory education has been ‘ring-fenced’, the further and higher education budgets are more vulnerable. A cutback in spending on higher education has already been announced and speculation is rife that university fees will rise following the Browne report later this year. The impact of any such change, particularly on potential applicants from less well-off backgrounds, will be important to understand, especially as the government is still committed to widening participation and social mobility. IES research shows that some students are willing to incur greater debt in return for higher earnings in the long term. However, young people from more deprived backgrounds are more likely to be put off from going to university by the cost. They also have limited awareness of the grants, bursaries and other support that is available to help them.

Elsewhere, the government has already indicated that it will concentrate hard on trying to obtain value for money from the funds that are available, through minimising the deadweight from spending on activities that would have happened anyway, and from looking at longer-term outcomes (eg progression in employment and/or learning) rather than short-term indicators (such as attainment of qualifications). The cutback on spending on Train to Gain could be seen in this light rather than a signal that a lower priority will be given to adult training.

What about adults?

That said, at the time of writing, the future direction of policy on adult skill development remains to be clarified. As the National Strategic Skills Audit – much of which was based on IES research – demonstrated, most of the new skills and job opportunities that will be created over the next 10 years or so will need to be taken up by people already in the workforce. As jobs continue to change in the wake of developments such as further digital technology innovation and the need to reduce energy consumption, people will need re-training and/or up-skilling. The skills audit predicted a growth in demand for technicians, and while some of this demand can be met by young people coming through apprenticeships, it will also require older people to retrain and upgrade their skills. Many of the new jobs in the care sector, in hospitality and in retail, that are also likely to be created in the next few years will be met by people already in the workforce. The better skilled and qualified they are, the better able they will be to get and do well in those jobs and contribute to the economic and employment recovery.

It is therefore important that government learning and skills policy does everything it can to encourage people already in work, or seeking work, to continually upgrade their skills or develop new skills to meet the changing needs of the labour market.

In that light it is interesting (and to some extent surprising) to note the positive noises made by ministers about non-vocational learning and in particular the value of adult education classes. Whether such good intentions survive the austerity to come in the spending review, remains to be seen.

Footnotes [back]

[1] 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform. Final Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform.

For more information on this work, please contact Jim Hillage at IES.