UK lagging behind other nations in technical education - report

A new report into technical education has painted a damning picture of the system in the UK compared to other nations in Europe. According to the Education Policy Institute (EPI) the UK has one of the largest funding gaps between academic and technical education.

The EPI examined the approach of leading technical education nations to funding, qualifications, student support and the curriculum at upper secondary level (age 16-19). They found that in the UK technical students receive 23 per cent less funding than academic students. This is in contrast with several other developed countries, where the reverse applies. For example, across countries which are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average spend is 16 per cent more per technical student than per academic student. In Austria funding for technical students is 26 per cent higher than for academic students, while in the Netherlands and Germany it is 37 per cent higher.

The UK also lags behind the OECD average in terms of funding per student – in 2016 the UK as a whole spent £6990 per student on average compared to an OECD average of £8080 per student. Recent data shows that 16-19 education in England has seen a funding squeeze, with real terms funding per student in sixth forms and colleges declining by 16 per cent between 2010-11 and 2018-19. Recently announced additional government funding of £400 million will only reverse a quarter of these cuts. The UK also has less generous student support than in other countries, and government bursary funding to students decreased by 71 per cent per student between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

The study also finds that England is an international outlier in terms of the length of its upper secondary education offer, at just two years. This compares with Austria, where some programmes last up to five years, and Denmark (approx. four years). It also found that the curriculum is often much narrower in England - in leading technical education nations students continue to study languages, maths, and other general subjects to help them prepare for the labour market or further study, but there is usually no requirement to do so in England.

There are warm words in the EPI’s report for the government’s recent technical education reforms, including the new T levels, but it suggests they are in themselves insufficent. They make a number of recommendations for how the government might narrow the technical education gap with other nations, including reviewing the funding for technical pathways and increasing the number of students starting 16-19 apprenticeships. They also suggest reviewing the adequacy of student support and reconsidering the curriculum breadth and length of technical courses.

David Robinson, one of the author’s of the report, and the EPI's director of post-16 and skills, said: ‘This research highlights the gulf between England and successful technical education nations. The government’s recent reforms, including the new T levels, are a step in the right direction, but policies must go further if we are to be considered a leader in Europe.’  

Commenting on the report, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union said ‘If Government is serious about the importance of technical education then it must learn from this challenging report. Our 16-19-year-old students need sustainable funding, not piecemeal initiatives; they need real support for their living, learning and travelling costs; and they need a curriculum that is broad, relevant and challenging.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘We are investing significantly to level up skills and opportunity across the country. In addition to our £3 billion National Skills Fund, we have announced a £400m increase to 16 to 19 funding for 2020-2021, creating longer, higher-quality technical apprenticeships.’

Full report: 

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July 13, 2020 (PDF 1.94 MB)

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