Designing the skills we need for the future

Joanne Harper, Principal at UTC Reading, looks at the changes ahead for the academies sector

The education sector is still digesting the contents of the Sainsbury’s Report published this summer. The report outlines what needs to be done to improve the quality of technical education in England and, in particular, to simplify the currently over-complex system which makes it hard for young people to understand the skills they need to secure employment.  The report also outlines what needs to be done to ensure the new system provides the skills most needed for the 21st century.   For those who are not familiar with the Sainsbury’s Report, this is an Independent Panel on Technical Education which was established by the Minister for Skills, on behalf of the Secretaries of State for Education and for Business, Innovation and Skills in November 2015, who were tasked with looking at how as a nation we can improve our technical skills and the UK’s competitiveness.

Today we have a serious shortage of technicians in industry at a time when over 400,000 16-24 year olds are unemployed.  It is hard for me to believe that none of these young people have the ability and motivation to train as technicians if given good opportunities to do so.

If we look at successful education systems elsewhere in the world a central feature is a well-understood national system of qualifications that works in the marketplace and works for industry.  Young people will only work hard to get a qualification, and value it highly when they get it, if employers when recruiting give priority to individuals who possess it.

The report goes on to look at how with industry input government can design a system that provides young people with clear educational routes which lead to employment in specific occupations, while at the same time clearly and simply providing career advisers with what they need to explain to young people what options they have.

Most of the content in the report was music to my ears as it reinforces the UTC’s whole approach to specialist and technical education, whilst working hand in hand with our industry.   If I go back five years there was much scepticism  about the need for UTCs, but I think today it is proven that University Technical Colleges help young people not only specialise but understand more clearly how they can use their qualifications in industry.  For those who are not familiar with UTCs, we are government-funded schools that offer 14–19 year olds a great deal more than traditional schools. We teach students technical and scientific subjects in a whole new way. We are effectively educating the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow.

The UK needs advanced technical skills at all levels if we are to prosper in the 21st century. Whether in manufacturing, wind farms, rail links or hi-tech hospitals we need a workforce that can develop new products, stretch and reuse existing resources, and meet all the challenges of the future.  Put simply, UTCs are meeting the needs of the skills gap and by 2017 more than 27,000 students will be able to follow this new technical education pathway.

UTC Reading focuses on Computer Science and Engineering and this focus has meant that we are much more industry orientated than other schools.  Even though we have only been open for three academic years the school has been awarded an outstanding by Ofsted.   Right now there are 39 UTCs around the country and over 50 will have opened by 2018. I firmly believe that specialisation will become more prominent in schools and FE colleges moving forward.

I would have been pleased to see the Sainsbury’s report go even further as and suggest that we stop funding courses that are no longer relevant to what the marketplace needs. This is because at the end of the day it is the public purse that has to pay for these courses. Public money should be funding courses that industry needs, rather than courses being offered for the sake of a broad offering. This underpins how important it is to work in partnership with industry to clearly understand the direction that industry is moving in.

What UTCs do, and what the report is eluding to, is the need for clear and transparent technical routes which lead to employment in specific occupations.  This must be sufficiently clear and simple that career advisers can easily explain to young people what options they have. As a representative on the Careers and Enterprise Company here in Berkshire, I know this is much needed. This way we know that we are designing the skills needed for the future. Currently there are 13,000 qualifications available to young people, many of them of little value, which makes career guidance extremely difficult.

I certainly believe that the development of such a national system of qualifications, together with the introduction of the new apprenticeship levy, provides a unique opportunity to equip the UK with a world-class system of technical education whose costs are fairly shared among employers and the state.

With Brexit it is now even more important that we develop the skills we need to remain globally competitive.  Technical qualifications are no longer the second-hand route.  What is important here is that we work very closely in partnership with industry, and while Government of course must design the overall education system, I firmly believe that industry experts must lay down the knowledge, skills and methods of assessment needed for each qualification.  This is one of the reasons why at UTC Reading we have worked very hard to develop strong partnerships with industry and our partners are  actively involved in all aspects of the school from helping to design the curriculum to providing mentorship, projects and work placements for our students. 


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