The inadequate provision of vocational technical education in the UK has for too long been a given. Engineering employers in this country have spent decades bemoaning the ‘skills gap’ they face while casting envious eyes at competing countries where vocational education is widely available and well run.
It was in this context that 2016’s Sainsbury Review of technical education took place and in which its recommendations were universally accepted in the form of the Post-16 Skills Plan. This will essentially narrow the options of 16 year-olds to remaining in academic education by either doing A-Levels; joining an apprenticeship scheme or taking one of 15 so-called ‘T-Levels’ or technical pathways (including engineering) towards a standardised vocational qualification.
This process has involved the establishment of panels responsible for developing the outline content for the new T levels. The panels are made up of employers, professional bodies and providers and help in creating technical education programmes.
Mike Westlake, UK and Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) manager at Autodesk, has been appointed to lead the Engineering and Manufacturing T-Levels panel, as part of a major reform of technical education in the UK. As chair, his responsibility is to help nurture a generation of home-grown talent and deliver a UK skills revolution.
Speaking to Eureka!, Westlake makes clear his enthusiasm for this new path, saying: “This reform is hands-down the best that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime in that they’ve said ‘We’re going to do everything that the report says’. The difficulty will certainly be a cultural thing.As a panel, that is going to be as big a job as getting the qualification correct. It’s going to be making sure that all of our networks and the rest of industry know that this is coming and that it is being done by industry.”
One of the things most in need of reform to which Westlake points is the multiplicity of vocational qualifications available. He says: “One of the things that is called out in the Sainsbury Review is that, as a plumber, you could do 33 different qualifications that will get you the same level two, or three, or whatever it may be.So, what do you choose, as a student? And more importantly, as an employer, which of those even means anything? Do they mean all the same?”
The consequence of this, he feels, has been a wholesale devaluation of vocational qualifications. “By constantly creating new qualifications, a race to the bottom has been created whereby employers and others favour those courses that are least demanding because they require the least expense and effort to produce ‘qualified’ individuals,” he says.”That has had the effect of destroying technical education’s reputation in this country.”
By arriving at a more standardised qualification, Westlake hopes it will be possible to level the playing field and restore confidence. “Our role as a panel,” he says, “is to say ‘this is what we need as employers’.”
The panel meets once a month in order to shape the T-Level course. However, while there is a need to arrive at a standardised end result, there is also a consciousness that engineering is a broad discipline and that the course should not be a straitjacket. Instead, it is intended that individuals should arrive at an understanding of their preferred discipline.
“What we’re trying to achieve,” he says, “Is that at 15, you know you want to do engineering. So, in the first year, we want it to be broad enough to give you an overview of everything.And then, you go ‘Okay. So now I think that I prefer manufacturing processes’.And then you would do a bit more study there, and say ‘Oh, actually I’m really into additive manufacturing’. That’s the way the successful technical education systems around the world work. You start broad and then the idea is to specialise off into different areas over the next two, three, five, six years.” In this way, it is hoped that not so many students will be lost by committing to a particular discipline and becoming disillusioned.
Westlake is under no illusions as to the size of the task in hand. Indeed, he appreciates that work also needs to be done to encourage younger children to be open to engineering as a career. He says: “As an industry, we lose a lot of people before they’ve even made their GCSE choices. They’ve been turned off engineering, manufacturing, construction, at nine or ten.So actually, a big part of our role is also making sure we don’t lose 50% of the population before they even get to an age where they can decide for themselves.”
Another danger of which Westlake is well aware is the potential for a clash between T-Levels and apprenticeships. He says: “In theory, you could be fighting with apprenticeships.Obviously, you want to be in conjunction instead.” He envisages that the way in which this can be achieved is by the potential for crossover between the two. “After a year on a T-Level, a student may identify what it is they want to do and it could be the case that an apprenticeship might be more appropriate. Perhaps that may mean there will be a crossover course. We want to make it flexible for kids, because the future of work demands that it must be.”
Ultimately, Westlake is excited by the challenge he has taken on and by the scope of the new measures. “For the first time, the government has taken in all recommendations, and it is being led by industry,” he says. “So we have to get it right for ourselves. We’re leading it as industry to make sure that it is fit for purpose. And we’re future-proofing the qualification as well… Technical education is rapidly changing, so the reform is well overdue – and certainly needed.”