To truly address skills shortages, we need to pull together the whole system: from secondary to further education to higher education.

There is an acknowledged shortfall in the number of people educated to Levels 4 and 5 in England. The principle cause of this shortage is the significant number of learners who are failing to progress from lower levels.

Levels 4 and 5 are represented by HNCs and HNDs, amongst other qualifications, and are equivalent to the first two years of a degree.

Last year I wrote about the importance of Levels 4 and 5 in a paper for HEPI entitled, “Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5”. It highlighted both the importance of ensuring competency in English and Maths and that too many learners are completing compulsory education without the necessary qualifications, limiting their access not only to HE, but also to work and apprenticeships. It also drew attention to the importance of providing greater access to high quality Level 4 and Level 5; treating this as higher education, as it is officially designated, and resourcing it accordingly to ensure that it has both the facilities and staff it needs to attract the esteem it merits.

With government plans to introduce T Levels well advanced, and a review of vocational qualifications at Levels 2 and 3 underway, I believe it is time for employers, universities, FE Colleges and others to come together to examine the role of prior education and qualifications in our Level 4 and 5 problems.

A Levels (defined as Level 3 qualifications) were devised by universities to prepare learners for higher education; and GCSEs (Level 2) to prepare learners for A Levels. This works, to a large extent, but only for those for whom this is the most appropriate pathway. In 2017, 39.4 per cent of 19-year-olds had not achieved a Level 3 qualification. A further 28.6 per cent did not even achieve a Level 2 in English and maths. This amounts to a significant pool of learners who cannot progress to Level 4 or above.

To solve our skills shortages at Level 4 and 5, we must turn out attention to Levels 2 and 3.

To solve our skills shortages at Level 4 and 5, we must turn out attention to Levels 2 and 3.

There is a hope that the new T Levels – described as substantial and rigorous job based qualifications at Level 3 – will offer a route into “higher technical” Levels 4 and 5, by both supporting some of those currently taking the more academic routes to progress using different delivery frameworks and by providing a new pathway for those not currently progressing at all to Level 3 and beyond.

Whilst there are outstanding issues around how these will operate there is potential for them to make a valuable contribution to enhancing, for some, the pathway from Level 3 to 4 if the systems are joined up and do not fall into the English tendency of creating artificial divides between what is seen as disparate FE and HE systems.

Indeed, there is common consensus that, to achieve widespread acceptance and credibility, T Levels must, like A Levels, offer a route to Higher education. However, these qualifications have been largely designed by employers; and whilst they may ultimately prepare learners very well for particular jobs, there are serious questions over whether they will prepare them for higher level study.

If T Levels are to offer a route into Higher education, including Level 4 and 5, then universities must be invited to play a much greater role in developing and designing these qualifications. If T Level learners end up having to supplement their T Levels with A Levels or other learning, then any sense of “parity” with A Levels will be lost. Furthermore, the number of teaching hours (and available funding) required for T Levels are likely to make such additional study impractical.

Whilst T Levels might provide an opportunity to expand entry into Level 4 and 5, the current approach simultaneously risks substantial collateral damage to another, well established and largely successful, route into higher technical education and vocational degrees. In recent years, Applied Generals have increasingly become a pathway for university admission. In 2017, 19 per cent of 18-year-old applicants to HE held one or more BTECs (the most common form of Applied General).

Historically, some of these learners have struggled to make the transition to HE; however, user research by York Consulting on behalf of Ofqual suggests that the new revised BTEC Nationals, with “must-pass” external assessments, may be providing a stronger grounding for HE progression. It also suggests that applicants with Applied Generals for courses in the creative arts, ICT, sports related subjects and areas of health and social care, may be preferred to their A Level counterparts.

The Government is consulting on the withdrawal of funding for Applied Generals, in part with a view to clearing the way for the untested T Levels. Such a step would remove an existing pathway without a proven replacement, potentially exacerbating the shortage of learner supply at Levels 4 and 5. Furthermore, there are substantial questions around the suitability of T Levels for older learners, for those with Special Educational Needs, and those too geographically distant from a suitable placement in their subject of interest.

The current system of allowing students to select an academic A Level track, a more vocational (Applied General) track, or a mix of the two – to keep future work and study routes open – has led to an increase in learners progressing to Level 3 qualifications.

Without BTECs and other qualifications that offer a mixture of applied technical and academic learning, there is a genuine risk of imposing a rigid binary choice on learners at 16 and reversing these improvements and strengthening a silo-based approach between so called academic and vocational routes. I believe this would be a failure.

Alongside its review of Level 3 qualifications the Government appears to be considering a further reduction of vocational qualifications at Level 2. At Level 2, some support the Level 2 apprenticeship as a first step on the upskilling ladder. However, only 25% of those achieving a Level 2 apprenticeship are progressing to Level 3, suggesting that this ladder is not working as it should. Level 2 apprenticeships are often very job specific and many offer neither a clear onward pathway nor an embedded, recognized qualification, leaving the learner with little basis for progression.

Some Level 2 apprenticeships are contributing little or nothing to increasing either social mobility or UK productivity.

Apprenticeships, though originally designed to deliver productivity gains, are now often characterised principally as a potential booster to social mobility. A recent report by the Social Market Foundation helpfully addresses this potential dichotomy. It highlights that only by delivering productivity can we deliver effective social mobility – the higher wages that underpin social mobility are only made possible through higher productivity. Sadly, the SMF report shows that “on average, Level 2 apprenticeships do not produce a statistically significant increase in wages upon completion”.

Some Level 2 apprenticeships are contributing little or nothing to increasing either social mobility or UK productivity. The conclusion therefore is that. Understandably then the Social Market Foundation sees the recent fall in Level 2 apprenticeships as a positive sign – contributing to a shift in investment to higher level programmes. Advanced/ higher level apprenticeships accounted for just under three in ten (29 per cent) of apprenticeship starts in 2002/03, a proportion which increased to 57 per cent in 2017/18. However, although the percentage shifts are substantial, there are still relatively low numbers of Level 4+ apprenticeships. The Social Market Foundation says “This trend is positive but the large volume and proportion of Level 2 apprenticeships remains very concerning.”

FE Skills Index

Of course, it is wrong to dismiss all Level 2 apprenticeships; earnings vary significantly by occupation. A study by the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) found men on engineering apprenticeships can expect very high returns. And in some cases where productivity returns are low we may wish to make strategic decisions, for example in health and social care. Productivity and wage outcomes from Level 3 are also highly variable. In 2017, only a third those undertaking Level 3 apprenticeships in education reported a pay rise; however, for those in construction the figure was over 70 per cent.

When exploring the reasons why productivity outcomes from Level 2 apprenticeships can be so poor, it is worth going back to the descriptions of Levels 2, 3 and 4 within the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF). Learners at Level 2 are defined as having the “practical skills to complete well-defined, generally routine tasks and address straightforward problems”. By Level 4 these learners are able to “address problems that are complex and non-routine”.

It could therefore be that for employers, Level 2 apprenticeships are simply not adding enough value to justify the cost and effort. The recent withdrawal from Level 2 apprenticeships by Halfords suggests that the cost and return of them simply do not add up for them.

If employers are not willing, or able, to upskill those who have been failed by the education system, then we must go back to looking at that system.

The Department for Education’s Skills Index, which measures the impact of further education and skills on productivity, has dropped by over 25 per cent in five years. According to the DfE report: “The overall FE skills index has decreased each year since 2012-13, largely driven by a reduction in learners achieving classroom-based qualifications”.

With that in mind, perhaps it is time to review the current emphasis on skills over education and to provide vocational qualifications, which focus more on knowledge and application. Perhaps we can create Level 2 and 3 qualifications which have the educational underpinning to ensure they apply not only to the learners’ current job and current employer but also in other jobs with other employers; and which lead to genuine progression in employment, in higher-level training or in education.

The London South Bank Group comprises South Bank Academies (South Bank Engineering UTC and University Academy of Engineering, South Bank), South Bank Colleges (Lambeth College), South Bank Enterprises and London South Bank University. These organisations work to shared outcomes and use a shared educational framework.

This shared educational framework comprises:

  • Knowledge – in its applied context
  • Currency – the latest insights informed by employers, professional bodies and researchers
  • Competency – the skills to apply that knowledge
  • Confidence – the personal attributes to put those skills and knowledge into practice in the workplace and beyond.

The successful application of this framework has delivered a dramatic increase in graduate employability which now sees LSBU ranked 4th in the UK for graduate outcomes, joint 7th for graduate staring salaries and being named University of the Year for Graduate Employment, for the second consecutive year, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide.

Alongside the shared educational framework, the group members are working to integrate operational services where this makes sense. In South Bank Academies, the ability to integrate funding at Multi Academy Trust level ensures that learners can make a genuine choice based on the learning style and outcome that is right for them – either focusing on a route through the Engineering Academy or the Technical College.

It also enables flexibility between institutions, allowing learners to transfer, to take courses at different institutions and I would like in the future to explore options to enable students to defer selected exams until the time that is right for them i.e. breaking down the need to compartmentalise learning pathways by level.

This facilitates more flexibility for the learner than the very age-based linear system that pervades education generally. I believe we need a more holistic and integrated education and qualifications structure that offers some flexibility based on the needs of individuals and doesn’t make people see variations as inferior to conventional linear routes.

In any re-examination of Levels 2 and 3 and the skills pipeline, we must be mindful not only of those who have been failed by school but by the millions of potential adult learners who are being denied the opportunity of later advancement.

Since 2005, there has been a 45 per cent decrease in adults participating in FE and skills. Given there are currently around 20 million working-age adults without any higher education qualifications (compared to only around three-quarters of a million 18 year-olds in total), reviving access to higher education for mature, principally part-time, learners could be a key path to delivering more Level 4 and 5 learners and should be an educational priority for the government. Given the weakness of some Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships and some of the limitations of T Levels, we need to look at what pathways at Level 2 and 3 there are into Level 4 and 5 for the millions of working age adults.

In summary, much of the discussion around the UK’s future education and skills needs is framed by the context of skills shortage, the growing impact of Artificial Intelligence and other technology, and the UK’s poor productivity. There is constant talk of the need to upskill to Levels 4 and 5; but politicians and others are unduly focused on lower level apprenticeships some of which have little educational value, limited transferability and no productivity gains.

Our ability to deliver the requisite Level 4 and 5 qualified technicians is limited principally by the failure of our secondary and Further education systems to create the pipeline. We are failing to get 28.6 per cent of young people to Level 2 and a further 39.4 per cent to Level 3. Without addressing this, we have no hope of addressing our gaps at Level 4 and 5. It is time to look at alternatives to GCSEs and consider the below recommendations.

Qualified Technicians

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.