Can we fix further education?

The Conservatives want to revolutionise further education and apprenticeships. But can Britain ever make a German-style model work? Simon Wilson reports

What’s happened?

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that the government is scrapping the Blair-era target that 50% of students in England should go on to higher education and pledged a pivot – in status and funding – towards vocational further education. “For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves,” said Williamson in a speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation think tank. “There are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs.” Williamson wants to build a “world-class, German-style further education system” that will equip young workers for the 21st century. He pointed out that five years after completion, the average higher technical apprentice earns more than the average graduate. He even updated Tony Blair’s election slogan, saying that: “From now on, our mantra must be further education, further education, further education”.

Great – how much is he investing?

Nothing yet. But the speech – which comes a year after the New Labour 1999 target of 50% was finally reached – laid down a marker ahead of a white paper due this autumn. It was warmly welcomed by David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which represents the further education (FE) sector. He hailed Williamson’s commitment to “end the snobbery that places university study as somehow more worthy and important than apprenticeships, technical training or people taking their first steps into better literacy or numeracy”. And there’s certainly plenty of room for extra funding. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a decade of cuts has seen funding for 16-18 year-olds fall by 12% in real terms, while adult education funding collapsed by two-thirds.

That’s quite a fall?

The national funding rate for 16- and 17-year-olds has been frozen at £4,000 per student since 2013. By contrast, government funding for pupils aged 11-16 averages £5,371 and for those in higher education, £9,124 (according to campaign group Raise the Rate). The Covid-19 pandemic has also hammered income from commercial activities, such as letting out facilities for conferences or running student-staffed services such as hair salons. The government’s own FE commissioner, Richard Atkins, warned a select committee last week that 30 to 40 colleges are at immediate risk of running out of cash – and that colleges’ income would be badly damaged by “a potential 50%-plus drop in apprenticeships” due to the economic slump. Williamson’s new cash can’t come soon enough.

Is it right to abandon the 50% target?

There’s no evidence that sending fewer young people to university “is the route to a more productive economy”, said Jo Johnson, the former Tory universities minister, last week. Perhaps, said David Goodhart on UnHerd – but there is no evidence on the other side either. And it is a “simple historical fact that the most rapid post-war economic and productivity growth happened when barely 10% of school leavers went to university in the 1960s”. The huge expansion in higher education means more than a third of UK graduates are now in “non-graduate employment” more than five years after graduating and the graduate pay premium is shrinking. “Meanwhile, employers are desperately short of people with higher manual and technical skills and there are big shortages in both the skilled trades and the care economy.” And even as the proportion of graduates in the adult population has risen to 35% (45% among the under-30s), “productivity has declined, social mobility has at best flat-lined and cultural divides have grown starker”. 

Is a “German-style” system the answer?

It could well be. According to the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane, FE is the “collapsed left lung of the UK’s educational system”. In Germany, by contrast, there is “no skills high road and low road. Instead, there is a dual carriageway – one lane academic, the other vocational – on which people earn a similar salary with equal status”. Around half of each year group in Germany go on to university and half on to a three-year apprenticeship, of which they spend about 50% learning “on the job” and 50% at a vocational training school. It’s an impressive system, said Philip Oltermann in The Guardian. But transplanting it is not easy. The system “requires a high level of complex coordination” between employers, the federal states that fund vocational training schools tailored to local needs, the unions that feed into the curriculum and the trade bodies that carry out the exams at the end. Past British efforts – New Labour’s “14-19 Diplomas” and David Cameron’s apprenticeship targets – “struggled to build up the educational infrastructure required” and so flopped. Even in Germany, numbers are down as more students seek the flexibility of an academic degree.

Can we succeed this time?

It’s a noble aim, says Will Hutton in The Observer – but Britain has been lauding Germany’s approach ever since a Royal Commission report in 1888. Tackling the issue would need a “wholesale assault on educational disadvantage that starts when a child is born”, along with “a revolution by British business in its disdainful, disengaged approach to training and nurturing our young”. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £2bn Kickstart plan is a promising step forward, aiming to create 350,000 placements with a £2,000 bonus for every apprentice hired. That kind of scale is unlikely to actually happen, though. What could be a true game-changer is the creation of a “National Youth Corp” – as called for by 60 cross-party MPs – to champion and marshal work placements for all school leavers who want one. As the economy recovers, it could become the “national organisation needed to spearhead the engagement and skilling of Williamson’s left-behind 50%”. Now that would be radical. “Rooseveltian” even.

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