Lord Sainsbury: ‘There’s been too much focus on apprenticeships’

Lord Sainsbury, the architect of the Post-16 Skills Plan, talks to TES about qualifications, awarding bodies – and the importance of colleges as well as apprenticeships.
The Post-16 Skills Plan, published in July, set out what the government described as the “most significant transformation of post-16 education since A levels were introduced some 70 years ago”.

As a result, 16-year-olds will eventually be required to make a choice between an “academic” or “technical” education – and, within the latter, opt for one of 15 routes based on major employment sectors.

The man who chaired the independent panel behind the plans was Lord Sainsbury. Having held the roles of minister for science and innovation and chair of Sainsbury’s, his connections in the worlds of politics and business are second to none.

Six months on from the publication of the report, TES spoke to Lord Sainsbury about how the proposals have been received.

Q: When coming up with the recommendations, what were the main problems you discovered with the post-16 skills system?

A: “I hadn’t realised how chaotic the current system is, and how difficult it is for both individuals and employers to know what these qualifications mean. As a result of that, the [qualifications] don’t have the esteem.

“The only way to correct that is by actually making them simpler, so people will really value them. The other thing that’s just extraordinary is the number of changes that have been made to the bodies which delineate the system of qualifications. People just changed a bit of it, brought in an exciting new name, rechristened the bodies. That doesn’t really deal with [the underlying problems].

“And I think there was also one very bad idea, which was to have competing qualifications between different awarding bodies. Besides the obvious problem of a race to the bottom, you just get a multiplication of qualifications, very narrowly based, which don’t have the transferability that’s needed.”

Q: How did you choose the 15 routes, and why have some major employment sectors not been included?

A: “This isn’t about everything that isn’t A levels and GCSEs: this is about [sectors] where there is a need for technical qualifications. There are lots of good jobs [in other sectors]. Some of them quite skilled – but they’re not skilled in the necessity of having a lot of technical qualifications. This is where employers need to do the training. You take the retail industry, an area I know well. There are lots of skills and knowledge you have to acquire, but it’s almost all company-specific…So I think you can leave that bit to industry.

“The bit where you need a system of technical education is where there are transferable skills. If you don’t have a proper system, you find companies won’t do the training because, as soon as they [train someone up], they are poached by someone else. That’s one of the big issues in any technical education system, and that’s why government has to play a part and why you’ve got to find a way of funding it so that it’s seen to be fair between employers.”

Q: How do you see the growth of apprenticeships sitting alongside the creation of the new technical routes?

A: “The fundamental thing people haven’t focused on is that most countries have an apprenticeship route and a technical college-based route. Even Germany, which we think of as entirely apprenticeship[-based], has a college route…You’ve got to look at both together.

“In recent years there’s been too much focusing on apprenticeships. Not least because, if you look back, one of the big problems has been that…as the economy booms, lots of apprentices are taken on; there’s a recession, recruitment dries up. Eventually the economy takes off again and there’s a terrible shortage of apprentices.

“One of the good things about having a college-based technical route as well as an apprenticeship [route] is that one can compensate for the other. If there is a recession, there’s a drop in apprentices, then you can have an increase in the technical route.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 13 January edition of TES

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