Budget gives welcome boost to FE colleges but education needs major reform

Budget gives welcome boost to FE colleges but education needs major reform

In the current economic uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus crisis, education was never going to be the main focus of yesterday’s Budget.

I was pleased to see the funding initiatives that were in there – from investment in FE colleges to scrapping the reading tax – but I’m hoping to see more radical reform over the lifetime of this Parliament.

The chancellor focusing on key skills, such as the maths schools for 16-19 year-olds and giving more money to FE colleges, is also very welcome.

We also want to improve the adult skills base and giving some money to the National Skills Fund is helpful. These areas have been grossly underfunded thanks to successive governments’ unhealthy focus on university education to the exclusion of skilling the population for more vocationally orientated employment.

I think it’s really important to drop the notion that 50% of people should go to university – this fervour since the Tony Blair days has had some unintended consequences.

It has given people the impression that the only kind of valid education is academic. This naturally devalues vocational education and makes it appear second rate.

There has also been a lack of recognition that only about 25-30% of the population should really be following a highly academic route. The academic bell curve clearly shows this but we have almost 50% of students going on to university. This is not tenable and is the wrong kind of education for the majority.

Universities are lowering their standards to accept as many students as possible and are creating courses that do not have academic worth.

Subsequently, far too many students are taking on huge levels of debt that can never be repaid and studying degrees that will not get them suitable employment.

Vocationally orientated education is suffering because potential students are only doing this if the university route fails.

If we look at Germany only around 30% of young people take the university route. Children are also encouraged at an earlier age (14 years) to go in an academic or vocational direction.

The value judgment about whether academic is better than vocational does not seem to arise so much in Germany as children have not gone right through to 16 with a highly academic curriculum as they have in the UK.

GCSEs are a qualification system where every child in the UK is measured on a mainly academic basis and to be honest many will fail at this point and feel very disheartened.

Instead, I passionately believe, we should identify children’s talents earlier and from the age of 14 allow them to follow a curriculum that suits them.

We need an education system that can allow every young person to reach their full potential whether academic or vocational. This can only be done when they are placed on an equal footing.

Our education system should be radically overhauled so that it encourages elite performance from those who are academically able and elite performance from those who have more practically orientated skills.

The government should be looking at where there is a skills shortage in the UK and focus on organising educational institutions to fit this need and this should start in schools, not FE colleges. FE colleges can then supplement or carry this work forward for the vocationally orientated student.

Now we are out of the EU we cannot rely on cheap labour from poorer European countries to fill our vocational skills gap.

The government is looking to introduce T’ Levels, but I would go further in subdividing GCSE into qualifications into ’technical’ and ‘academic’.

This would mean students could focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses and it would be a win-win for the UK as a whole.

I hope this government, with its large majority, grasps the opportunity to bring in such changes – it’s time to end the ‘one-size-fits-all’ education system.