In this article, Dr Dick Evans, technical education specialist, discusses proposals for the TechBacc and considers its chances of success when previous attempts to gain parity of esteem with ‘A’ levels for vocational qualifications have foundered.
The latest attempt to introduce a vocational and occupational qualification, the Technical Baccalaureate (TechBacc), has been announced to begin in September 2014 and results will be reported in the performance tables in 2017. As usual the initiative is launched with much political hype and well-worn rhetoric – namely it will be of high quality, provide an alternative choice, possess parity of esteem with ‘A’ levels, be attractive to students of all abilities ensuring that the students have the skills employers want. This will be achieved through a programme comprising three elements namely:
- a level 3 vocational award that is endorsed by employers (e.g. CGLI, BTEC, Cambridge Technical Diplomas or at least two GCE ‘A’ levels in science and/or technical subjects).
- a level 3 ‘core’ mathematics qualification such as ‘AS’ level mathematics.
- an extended project that will test additional skills such as writing, communication, research, self-discipline and self-motivation.
The TechBacc framework draws upon existing and proposed national qualifications and will provide progression to apprenticeships, FE/HE, further training and employment.
The TechBacc. will be based on achievements rather than courses and will require evidence from different learning experiences including from a work place. Students will have a choice depending on their interests and intended occupation e.g. academic, artistic, technical and vocational – note that an academic theme is included which will again surely dilute the intentions of the award! After all, is the TechBacc a serious attempt to create a true alternative of equal value to ‘A’ levels or not!
- Little reference is made to the multitude of previous initiatives such as GNVQ and Diplomas and the fundamental and persistent problems they have faced, including:
- The cultural hostility to practical/technical disciplines.
- The prevailing preference for the so-called academic subjects over vocational ones.
- The destructive influence of the supposed gold standard of GCE ‘A’ levels supported by successive governments, public schools and some universities. In spite of innumerable attempts at reform they have remained largely the same since 1950.
- Recent research indicating that employers place a low premium on higher levels of skills for their employees which acts as an inhibitor to up-skilling the workforce and those wishing to enter employment. 33% of employers do not possess a business or training plan let alone a training budget for their workers.
- Incentive funding regimes for colleges which have disadvantaged vocational, technical and commercial subjects coupled with too much choice. Learners have opted for softer subjects that they perceive as easier and assume they provide a greater opportunity for employment.
Can these barriers be overcome? Early evidence shows little promise. There are already divisions appearing between the political parties and awarding bodies. Different models are being proposed e.g. by the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) and by Ed Miliband and Lord Baker.
It is hoped that graduates from the TechBacc will enter employment in technical roles in such areas as Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) occupations (e.g. construction, engineering, IT, and laboratory technicians), service roles (e.g. hospitality, personnel, retail) and creative technicians (e.g. design, digital and other media, material/textile occupations).
This initiative joins two others as the government attempts to raise the profile of vocational education, namely University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and Studio Schools (SSs). Only time will tell if these institutions on the already cluttered and fragmented education and training landscape will lead to any significant improvement and allow this country to be on a par with Germany, Japan and South Korea! But there is a steep path to climb as in England 17% of students leave full-time education at 16 whilst in Japan the figure is 4% and 10% in Germany and the USA.
For further information about the history of vocational education see: technicaleducationmatters.org