One of the government's key recommendations in its new Industrial Strategy is the creation, with £170 million of capital funding, of new Institutes of Technology. The aim is to increase the provision of higher-level technical education, an area where we are currently placed 16th out of 20 OECD countries.
Over the last 60 years policy makers have created Colleges of Advanced Technology, Polytechnics, Centres of Vocational Excellence, National Skills Academies and National Colleges. And from these we have learnt one thing – that new buildings are not the solution to our professional and technical skills problems.
Instead we should be looking towards the institutions that already exist – our 150+ universities and 200+ further education colleges, as well as schools, local employers, LEPs and local authorities. Rather than creating from scratch, we need to see how they can come together to create local solutions to local technical education needs. This will not necessarily speak to all institutions, but to those with a similar ethos which feel they can deliver more together than the sum of their parts. Using existing infrastructure will make the promised £170 million capital funding go much further. While this funding is unlikely to be sufficient to create new institutions across the country or even regional institutions with a particular industry focus, it is enough to facilitate some local solutions which could then form the basis of national ones.
The main failing of technical education, which has been highlighted time and again, including in Lord Sainsbury's Review, and the House of Lords Overlooked and Left Behind report, is the lack of clear pathways for progression. The academic route for learners – GCSE to A-Level to university – is clear. However, professional and technical skills routes are beset by disconnection, especially at Levels 3 to 5. We need schools, universities and colleges to work more closely together to provide, in further education, the same clear pathways found around higher education.
At London South Bank University we are already putting these ideas into practice by creating a 'Family of Educational Providers'. This is a cluster of specialist like-minded but distinct institutions within a formal group structure. The aim is to provide pathways through secondary, further and higher education and lifelong learning. The LSBU family currently includes a multi-academy trust: South Bank Academies, containing a University Technical College and an Engineering Academy. We are also progressing talks to bring in a local further education college. In September we will be opening an Institute for Professional and Technical Education which will provide a Level 3 gateway to the Level 4–6 higher and degree apprenticeships and other technical qualifications being delivered by the university as well as providing a 'one-stop-shop' for local employers.
This approach will treat learners as individuals in a framework with both horizontal and vertical links. This will enable them to undertake the learning they need when they need it, not just at prescribed moments on an educational obstacle course based on institutional, qualification and funding systems. Students should have the flexibility to choose the level, style and aim of learning that best suits them when they need it – able to transfer comfortably between technical, vocational or more academic pathways.
I'm pleased that the Department for Education has already indicated that the funding could potentially be used to fund these sorts of collaborations. The next step will be the creation of funding mechanisms and systems of quality and governance which allow these structures to operate effectively. If this can be achieved we can bring technical, professional and academic education together, and at last begin to put them on an equal footing.
" And from these we have learnt one thing – that new buildings are not the solution to our professional and technical skills problems." Couldn't agree more - allow institutions to devlop their exisiting capability and capicity through strategic partnerships.