Back in 2017, as part of the Conservative Manifesto, the Government proposed the introduction of a new suite of colleges to the education system, known as the Institutes of Technology. In April, the Government held true its pledge, with the announcement of the locations of the first 12 of these new Institutes.
Designed with the aim of increasing the availability of, and access to, high-quality technical skills training for young people around the UK the Institutes of Technology are a vital addition to the UK’s education system – and should be broadly welcomed as such. Increasing the technical skills of young people around the UK has never been more important.
However, there are a number of important questions and challenges arising from the Government’s proposed £170m investment in the institutes, which must be answered if the system is to be the success we so desperately need it to be.
Technical skills training needs to top the agenda
As a nation, we are suffering from a wide – and growing – skills gap.
According to research carried out last year, 47% of employers struggle to recruit the skilled staff they need and the same proportion list skills gaps as their main worry for the future of their business.
While the creation of these colleges is a critical stepping stone in encouraging young people to consider the full range of options available to them, it is only one part in the path to their successful rollout.
With uncertainty around the impact of Brexit dominating both media headlines and business discussions, anxiety over the growing skills gap is set to only get worse. And it will be exacerbated even further by rapidly advancing technologies and the effects of the fourth industrial revolution, meaning the need to upskill and re-skill the workforce can no longer be considered a ‘nice to have’.
For employers across almost every sector, having a highly skilled workforce has become a critical path for survival. However, there are fundamental changes needed across our education system if this is to happen effectively.
According to CIPD, the UK currently ranks 23rd out of 26 countries in Europe for employer investment in skills. And despite having an education system steeped in traditional academic schooling, according to the OECD, the UK ranks 20th globally for pupil achievement in english and maths, putting us behind countries including Estonia and Poland.
It is clear that we need to both better understand and recognise the importance of learning and development; nowhere more so than within the technical training space. With STEM sector skills gaps amongst the worst in the country, achieving parity of esteem between traditional schooling routes and technical, vocational alternatives will go a long way in helping employers build the workforce they need for the future.
Investment is just one piece of the jigsaw
According to the Government’s proposed plans, £170m worth of investment will be pumped into the creation of the new Institutes of Technology. While the creation of these colleges is a critical stepping stone in encouraging young people to consider the full range of options available to them, it is only one part in the path to their successful rollout.
When split between 12 training centres, this funding is unlikely to be sufficient to stretch as far as we need it to. And combined with a concerning lack of clarity as to how the money will spent by the individual Institutes, it is almost impossible to see what return on investment can be expected.
Funds will be required for the infrastructure to get these institutes up and running – from physical building costs and equipment, to recruitment fees to ensure the right staff are in place. But we are yet to see how the Department for Education will review this spending, monitoring where investments are being made and the value add, or return, of that capital.
Furthermore, capital investment alone cannot make any new system a success. For the institutes to be accurately and effectively implemented the Government needs to align these training centres with a centralised framework and agree clear KPIs or goals against which to measure their impact.
Increasing access and reach
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that the first 12 Institutes of Technology are heavily centred around the London area, with great swathes of the country not being served.
If the ambition of these training centres is to truly increase availability of technical training, and encourage young people into vocational education, it is critical we open up the opportunity to all young people, rather than restricting access to the few.
Of particular alarm is the cold spot that looks set to be created across the North West of England, where there are no proposed Institutes. According to research more than two thirds (67%) of employers in the area predict skills gaps within their business will either stay the same or worsen in the coming years.
As well as geographic limitations, the Department for Education must ensure that the specialisms offered by Institutes of Technology are in themselves not restrictive. No doubt these new training centres will be linked to anchor employers, which will in some way dictate the syllabus and qualifications provided within.
While helpful in plugging specific skills gaps within small regions or sectors – and ensuring employers continue to have access to the skills they need – we must ensure this system does not create a more limited prospectus, automatically curtailing the opportunities offered to young students in certain areas.
Inarguably, any investment in technical training and skills development is warmly welcomed, in particular at such a critical juncture in the UK’s productivity pathway. However, we must ensure that this capital investment is being made in the right places, realised in the right ways and alongside the best possible provision.