A false divide

This week we have seen two reports published focusing on how we best meet the skills needs of our economy. One from Policy Exchange on improving higher level professional and technical education, and one from OFSTED finding that not enough apprenticeships are providing advanced, professional skills in the sectors that need them most.

Whilst there is much to commend in each report – in particular Sir Michael’s calls for employers to be engaged with schools and the need for apprenticeships to deliver professional and up-to-date skills in sectors that need them most – both fall into the dangerous trap of framing their arguments based on a vocational versus academic divide. This is a highly outdated approach that is in no way representative of the educational landscape we are operating in.

Using these sorts of redundant notions is highly dangerous. If they are allowed to grow and progress to inform policy decisions, we frankly will not reach the outcomes that will best serve the needs of our economy and society.

Granted we are in a period building up to a Comprehensive Spending Review so it is not surprising that we are seeing this sort of stance being taken. But we have a responsibility to make sure that what we are asking for is in the best interests of learners, their families and our economy and society as a whole.

Nowadays it is simply not the case of taking young people down an either or route of vocational versus academic education. If we are to meet the increasing demand for higher-level skills in our economy we need to embrace and enhance the multiple pathways through education, based on collaboration and partnership. It is critical that we take a holistic approach across the educational landscape, understanding how the different elements interact and are co-dependent to boost our economy.

At UWE Bristol for example, we have very well-established and long-running partnerships with FE colleges and schools in the region and were a significant partner in setting up the first University Technical College in the South West, the Bristol Technology and Engineering Academy – with City of Bristol College and supported by Rolls Royce, Airbus and GKN Aerospace. Our approach to matching skill shortages to demand from students in this way has seen us double the number of our engineering students over the last four years. A move very much welcomed by local employers like Airbus and GE Aviation, and their supply chains, which at the same time has given the University a near 100% record of employment for its students.

We are also very engaged with developments in the area of Higher-Level Apprenticeships, working with Weston College and the City of Bristol College in Aerospace and Healthcare Science, directly addressing current and future skills needs.
We know we are seeing a growth in jobs requiring higher-level skills. To reach this level involves the development of both knowledge and skills. One without the other doesn’t work. We are working in a rapidly changing environment. Employees need to be able to able to understand, adapt and apply the knowledge and skills they have gained to new situations.

What we need to talk about is progressing students, not about an either or of FE, apprenticeships or HE. We need to ensure young people are given the opportunities to be the best they can be – so they can excel and realise their ambitions in our rapidly changing economy.