Vocational education is good for students and the country. So Government should get behind it.

Daisy Cooper MP – Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson – assesses policy and practice in vocational education.

Giving people access to learning and training opportunities throughout their lives has immense benefits, from better employment opportunities to improved health outcomes”. This is one of the first lines in the report by The Commission on Lifelong Learning which was convened by the former Lib Dem leader, Sir Vince Cable. It sums up why giving adults the opportunity to upskill and retrain throughout their lives is at the heart of Liberal Democrat education policy.

The Commission’s report sets out in detail an idea for introducing an account which would help people fund learning and training opportunities throughout life. This idea became the cornerstone of our Liberal Democrat education policy in the last General Election. A ‘Skills Wallet’ which would give everyone £10,000 to spend on education and training. This would be made up of an initial £4,000 Government investment when people turn 25, a further £3,000 when they turn 40 and, finally, another £3,000 at the age of 55.

Individuals, employers and local government would be able to make additional payments into these wallets, and people would be free to choose how and when to spend this money, on a range of approved education and training courses.  The package would sit alongside free career guidance, to help people decide how best, and when, to invest in training. 

As Liberals, we believe that every individual should be supported to thrive and to make the most of their talents. That means that we want to deliver an education system which equally values and nurtures different skills and styles of learning. But sadly our education system is still far too narrowly focussed and still prizes traditional academic measures of attainment above all else. 

In post-school education, this is manifested in the damaging and senseless inequity between the resourcing, access and esteem given to academic and vocational post-school learning.

When the Prime Minister claimed in his speech on 29th September that it was time to address the “pointless nonsensical gulf that’s been fixed for more than 100 years between the so-called academic and so-called practical side of education” – he voiced, very belatedly, an ambition that my Party, the Liberal Democrats, have been campaigning for, for years. 

Afterall, improving routes into technical and vocational education isn’t just good for those individuals who don’t feel university is right for them. It also makes excellent economic sense for our country. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on many sectors of the economy, we were facing some of the worst productivity levels in the OECD, and had acute shortages in many sectors.  If we want to ensure we have a skilled workforce who can adapt to changes in the labour market, then enabling people to easily access education in as many varied and flexible ways as possible is key. FE colleges offer a wide range of courses at different levels, which are shorter, and less expensive, than a traditional degree. Needless to say this is advantageous to many adult learners, who are more likely to have family and financial commitments which would make a university degree impossible. 

So, while the Government’s new commitment to boosting vocational training addresses many of these challenges, at least in theory – I am highly sceptical about whether it will go far enough to reach everyone who will be in need of new training and skills in the wake of this devastating pandemic. I look forward to seeing greater detail from them in due course, and in the meantime urge them to look at the detail of the Liberal Democrats policy on this, which has been informed by independent experts in skills and education. 

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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