News analysis

Britain's education reform could take time

The danger is that vocational education will not be treated the same as the academic path

The British government will unveil today a major overhaul of the country's secondary education system, under which students will be able to sit for the newly created "T-level" examinations, leading to mainly technical skills qualifications.

The move, contained in the new Budget which Finance Minister Philip Hammond will present to Parliament in London today, will cost £500 million (S$862 million) in extra spending a year from the start of the next decade, and is being hailed as "the most ambitious post-16 education reforms since the introduction of A levels 70 years ago".

But critics claim that the effort does not go far enough to address the broader problems with the British education system, and won't address labour difficulties.

Currently, unemployment among school-leavers in Britain runs at 12.6 per cent, less than half of the comparable figure in France, Spain or Italy. Still, that is almost double the 6.5 per cent youth unemployment rate in Germany, the country that leads Europe in the provision of vocational skills.

More significantly, the UK is ranked 16th out of 20 developed economies when it comes to the percentage of people possessing technical education, and up to 600,000 are classified by the authorities as not in education, employment or training, so-called "Neets" who are not merely unemployed, but also largely unemployable. Out of these, around 150,000 are in the 16 to 18 age bracket.

Successive British governments have tried to address the problem by raising the school-leaving age, but also by largely copying the German model, under which students are given the option of a mainstream education or the so-called Realschule stream, which provides an array of practical skills, followed by an apprenticeship with a future employer and specialisation in a profession.

Finance Minister Philip Hammond visiting a General Electric factory in Stafford, Britain. He will present a major overhaul of the country's secondary education system in Parliament today.
Finance Minister Philip Hammond visiting a General Electric factory in Stafford, Britain. He will present a major overhaul of the country's secondary education system in Parliament today. PHOTO: REUTERS

An apprenticeship scheme was introduced in Britain in 2011 by the government of Mr David Cameron, then prime minister, and this is now followed by Prime Minister Theresa May's administration with the creation of a technical education stream.

With effect from next year, students aged 16 in Britain will be able to choose between 15 different technical education routes - including agriculture, business and administration, catering and hospitality, and construction.

With effect from next year, students aged 16 in Britain will be able to choose between 15 different technical education routes - including agriculture, business and administration, catering and hospitality, and construction. All lead to T levels, followed by apprenticeships .

All lead to T levels, followed by apprenticeships.

But it remains to be seen whether this approach will truly make vocational education a successful alternative to the academic stream.

The danger is that T-level exams will continue to be regarded as an option for students who otherwise struggle academically, and will not be treated on an equal footing with the academic path.

There are also problems with apprenticeships. According to official statistics, a full 60 per cent of the current apprenticeship proposals have been rejected as unsatisfactory by government officials, indicating that the process will take time to start working.

The British government has pencilled 2022 as the year when the T-level exams and the subsequent working experience schemes are rolled out throughout the country.

Still, there is another looming dateline: 2019, when Britain will leave the EU. Brexit will reduce employers' ability to simply fill skill shortages by importing labour from the continent, and should therefore spur national demand.

"People must have the confidence, support and opportunities to adapt in their working life after Brexit," says Mr David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, a national umbrella organisation of British educational establishments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Britain's education reform could take time'. Print Edition | Subscribe