The importance of training and skills in technical education

Marielle Price 2

Employers and training providers are expected to embrace the transformation of post-16 education, but what will the focus on technical education look like in practice? David Russell talks about the challenges of turning the UK into the most skilled workplace in the world. 

A year ago I spent the day with a group of executives from around the world attending a lecture on management and financial accounting. The lecturer talked about how to grow income and cut costs and we were asked to think about the different ways this could happen. When the delegates got to the end of the list he seemed satisfied we had included everything. However, at this point no one had mentioned training and skills. 

I suggested one way to grow margin was to increase the skills of your workforce. He looked perplexed, as if to say, what have skills got to do with cutting costs or generating income? So I gave him the simple example of having a production line with lots of machines and people who have to operate them. 

If you’ve got people on a production line who are skilled in the work they are doing, they will be able to find better ways to do it and will optimise and configure the production line in a more effective way. They can also make fewer errors, fix problems and minimise downtime. The more skills your workforce have, the more innovation you’ll have across every aspect of your business. 

My example was an obvious one, but it could also be about how you deal with your customers or any aspect of your business flow. It was only talking through these examples that the lecturer finally agreed it would help and unknowingly revealed the challenge we have as an organisation when it comes to supporting the technical education reform. It is extraordinary that skills and training are still so often seen as an ‘HR issue’, rather than a core business issue of profit and loss. 


Emphasis on technical education as opposed to vocational education 

Technical and vocational education are terms which are used to contrast with academic education. They offer a sense of something useful, practical and work orientated which will give you work-relevant skills and take you into a trade or profession. However, there are some differences when it comes to the emphasis of technical versus vocational. More specifically, technical education (described in the post-16 skills plan and independent report by a panel led by Lord Sainsbury) generally signals a high-level education of at least A-Level equivalent and Level 3 and up. 

It also suggests subjects which have a high level of technical content (for example, science, engineering, construction and bio medics), rather than what is sometimes called soft skills or human interface skills. This is why ‘technical’ is often paired with ‘professional’ to cover the whole range by saying ‘technical and professional education’. 

The third reason for switching from the term vocational to technical is that vocational doesn’t necessarily have a great ‘brand’ value. If you ask parents about it they will often believe it’s what their child will be encouraged to do if they aren’t doing well at school. This leaves a negative connotation, therefore trying to build a new vision of education sometimes just needs a new word. 


The need for strong employer partnerships within the workforce 

Although we don’t yet know exactly what T-Levels are going to involve and what teachers and trainers need to be doing, we do know there will be a big emphasis on Level 3 and above. We also know they will be rich with content and include three-month work placements where students will apply and extend what they’ve learnt back in the classroom environment. 

For this to happen we are going to need strong employer partnerships and this is the single biggest challenge facing the post-16 teaching profession. With the large number of work placements needed, and in order for them to be high quality learning experiences, teachers and trainers are going to need very good relationships with employers. They are going to have to work with employers and teach them what kind of supervision, coaching and feedback will amount to a high quality educational experience, rather than simply spending time in a workplace. 

Secondly, we know from the work the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) has done that there aren’t enough teachers with the right kind of industrial backgrounds. In this respect we need to attract more people with high level relevant – and recent – industry experience and get them working hand-in-hand with Society for Education and Training (SET) members who are already high calibre teaching professionals and have valuable insights into their sectors and subjects. They will also need to co-create and co-deliver the curriculum with people from the industry. When that’s done well you’ve got first-class education, but that can only happen from solid partnership working, successful recruitment and long-term planning. 


Importance of skills and professional accreditations on the workplace 

The great thing about SET is that it’s not just a one-way dissemination model – SET is about exchange and keeping people up-to-date, offering members privileged access to policy developments and new challenges. 

We want to share information as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t mean we have all the answers, solutions and responses. These will come from professionals who’ve been dealing with different challenges year in year out for a long time and take the latest ones in their stride, but only if there’s a supportive environment like the one SET creates. 

This could come via webinars where people can talk to experts in their fields, articles you can read or link through to through our journal inTuition, online advice, networking groups and tapping into the government-subsidised offers the ETF provides whereby members can access courses, professional exchanges and materials. 

We are moving towards a world where it will become increasingly common for colleges and other providers to be looking for Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) and Advanced Teacher Status (ATS) when they are promoting or recruiting. I see these professional accreditations becoming more important as the challenges on the workforce and profession increases. 

You can have a really skilled workforce, but if you don’t then have a leadership or a work environment that utilises those skills then those skills are wasted. Our productivity as a country is low and has been for quite a long time, yet the relationship between skills and productivity is going to be even more important after we’ve left the EU. If we can’t get the flow of skills that we need, we need to be even better at training our own people.