The TechBacc and IAG

Why do we need the TechBacc? Are employers behind it – or disaffected by further ‘churn and change’? And what are the implications for IAG? I went along to a Westminster Education Forum event to get some answers.

This was a meeting about Tech Levels, Applied General Qualifications and the Technical Baccalaureate (TechBacc). These affect vocational provision at level 3.

Tech Levels are vocational qualifications in specific areas: each is recognised by a relevant trade or professional body or at least five employers. They’re due to be taught from September 2014.

Applied General Qualifications involve broader study of work-related areas. Each qualification is recognised by at least three HE institutions.

The Technical Baccalaureate (TechBacc) isn’t a qualification in its own right. To achieve the TechBacc, students need a Tech Level; an approved level 3 maths qualification; and an Extended Project Qualification. The Applied General Qualification doesn’t count because it doesn’t equip students with specialist skills and knowledge – a value judgement that specialisation at 16-19 is preferable to employers?

The DfE’s rational is driven by the Wolf Report’s findings that 350,000 students were taking vocational qualifications which, in its opinion, had little labour market value. The Government wants to address what it sees as mismatch between skills shortages and the poor reputation of current vocational qualifications. According to the DfE, school and college-based IAG is still too focused on the academic route; it considers the TechBacc the antidote. It claims that today’s vocational offering lacks the rigour and level of external assessment needed to make them credible to employers – a view largely supported by Ofqual, which promises to come down hard on awarding bodies offering qualifications that lack a clear ‘purpose’.

A key issue for the Government is the UK’s shortage of technical-level skills. I welcome this part of the TechBacc rationale: this crucial issue has been neglected while too many STEM and other initiatives focus only on graduate ‘high-flying’ role models. The Labour Party, informed by the independent Skills Taskforce, also identifies an over-emphasis in schools-based IAG on the academic, graduate route and a lack of knowledge among practitioners about the role and importance of technicians. And the Government has deliberately used the term ‘technician’ to widen perceptions and create a new sense of equivalency – Tech Levels aren’t just about STEM but include roles in art and design, sport, travel and tourism, and hairdressing (I’m not too sure what engineering employers would make of this broadening of the ‘technical’ term however…).

Specialisation is a thorny issue. Some voices of opposition at the Westminster event spoke of inflexibility – forcing students to choose between general and very applied vocational studies at too early an age. And some employers insisted that what they value above all are the general skills of literacy and numeracy – they say it’s not possible, productive – or even desirable? – for students to specialise before being taken on in the workplace. And yes, some employers are bemused by continuing change. They saw great things in the discontinued Diploma, especially the way it was developed in conjunction with employers. Some employers are confused because the TechBacc isn’t a qualification – the Government allowed that awarding bodies might bundle the component parts together and present it as one. In the meantime, the idea that the TechBacc is more of a performance table corrective was far from refuted by the DfE.

The Labour Party’s view was presented by Dr Ann Limb of the independent Skills Taskforce (so, she is not therefore a political representative of Labour). Labour’s Policy Review is published in three parts – the first and second are available now. Labour wouldn’t centrally dictate change either (the DfE points out that Government is not directing the TechBacc’s structural development but this is being worked out by funding and accountability groups). However, the Skills Taskforce advises Labour to ensure a nationally-funded IAG service, staffed by trained professionals and connected to schools – because it too criticises the level of work-related careers advice in schools-based IAG.

So, plenty more sweeping criticisms of IAG professionals, to go with the broad criticisms of vocational qualifications made in the Wolf Report. But as long as vocational qualifications remain poor relations, I think change is broadly to be welcomed.

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