Matthew Hancock, Skills Minister, speaks to the Sunday Times Festival of Education about vocational education.
Thank you very much for that introduction. It’s great to be here.
In this country - and, for that matter, in this room - all our fast and furious debates about schools, teachers, exams, curricula, are overshadowing an unsung success story.
Britain’s educational Achilles heel - our failure to provide world-class vocational education - is finally getting fixed.
The reforms this government is introducing are potentially the most profound and far-reaching since the 1944 Education Act - affecting thousands upon thousands of young people every single year.
This is a huge change. It’s a massive opportunity.
Hiding in plain sight
It is a vital subject, but it hides in plain sight.
GCSEs, A levels and university - that’s not just the typical path for most journalists, it’s the typical path for their friends, their families, their colleagues, their children and, for that matter, the politicians and business leaders they spend all day writing about.
More than half of young people study vocational courses at some stage of their education - either before or after 16.
But for far too long and far too often, vocational education has been overlooked and undervalued.
So I’m here today to redress the balance.
I want to celebrate this country’s excellence in vocational education just as we celebrate its academic achievements.
I want to champion the new norm - when every young person leaving school or college can choose between university or an apprenticeship, confident that each option is just as well-respected and gives them just as great a start to their future.
And I want to encourage everyone in our education system - and our society - to join me. To celebrate and champion success - and to celebrate and champion our young people who are working harder, and going further, than ever before.
Rigour and responsiveness
We know that education is increasingly important. Data released by the ONS just this week showed that the more educated people are, the more likely they are to be in work - while fewer than half of those with no qualifications are employed.
So this government is taking urgent action to improve our education system.
You know about the academic reforms: to GCSEs, A levels and the curriculum.
But here’s a well-kept secret: everything we’ve done for academic qualifications, we’ve also done for vocational qualifications. And we tackled vocational first.
One of our first priorities in government was to ask Professor Alison Wolf to review the quality of vocational education.
She produced one of the most important pieces of work on the subject.
Her report found that between a quarter and a third of young people - 350,000 teenagers - were being fobbed off with poor-quality qualifications that were not valued by employers and did not prepare them adequately for employment or further study.
It was a tragic waste of talent, on an industrial scale.
We accepted and implemented every recommendation in the Wolf report, and in some cases went even further. And 3 years on, standards have already started to rise.
Higher standards from 11 to 19
We are breaking down barriers between academic and vocational education. Because life and work need knowledge, skills and behaviours.
Our new national curriculum has much more relevant, practical content.
Under the old curriculum, pupils often spent most of their time talking about making things. Under our new curriculum - they’ll actually make them.
In design and technology, for example, the old curriculum made pupils discuss how to plan a meal - but didn’t require them to cook anything. To discuss how they might design a product - instead of actually designing it.
Now, they get real-life experience in a kitchen or a workshop, cooking, soldering, 3D printing - getting to grips with real processes.
The same goes for computing. The old curriculum taught pupils how to use existing programs. Now, they will learn how to program - how to write software for themselves in different languages like HTML and Java, to create search algorithms, set up a computer network, and encrypt devices.
Under the previous system, there was also an explosion in poor-value vocational qualifications - the sort which claimed, falsely, to be ‘equivalent’ to several GCSEs; but which were completely irrelevant in the workplace.
Acting on Alison Wolf’s recommendations, we set out clear requirements of non-GCSE KS4 qualifications - and as a result removed a staggering 97% of them out of league tables.
So we stripped them out of league tables. From 3,175 vocational qualifications available to 14- to 16-year-olds, now there are just 186. And we’re working with awarding organisations to make sure these qualifications meet the needs of industry and demonstrate real rigour and quality.
Technical Awards and TechBacc
We’ve scrapped the confusion of different pathways, at 14, 16 and beyond - and brought in a new, rigorous, ambitious vocational offer from 14 right through to 19 and beyond.
As I announced earlier this week, between 14 and 16, new Technical Awards - each one genuinely equivalent to a GCSE - will bring much greater rigour to the learning of hands on skills, putting practical and vocational and academic qualifications on the same level playing field for the first time.
With external marking; graded, not pass or fail; developed in partnership with employers; they will offer young people the chance to develop the real-life, practical skills and knowledge which employers value.
From 16 to 19, alongside or instead of A levels, students can study new, rigorous Tech Levels - every single one endorsed by employers, trade or professional bodies.
For the most talented, those Tech Levels can form part of our Technical Baccalaureate, or TechBacc - a new league table measure recognising the achievements of young people who study Tech Levels, level 3 mathematics and an extended project qualification.
On Wednesday we announced that some of the first high-performing schools and colleges to offer the TechBacc will carry out pioneering work with local employers as our TechBacc Trailblazers, spread across the country from Barnet to Blackpool.
The final part of the puzzle is a new category of Substantial Vocational Qualifications - intermediate qualifications designed for 16- to 19-year-olds who wish to progress immediately into a skilled trade, or to prepare for a related Tech Level.
All of these qualifications will need public backing from employers and rigorous assessment, giving students confidence that the qualification they’re taking is worthwhile.
But the path is now simple: GCSEs and Tech Levels at 16, then A levels or Tech Levels as the occupational options at 18.
And of course, from the age of 16 onwards, our reformed apprenticeships, now being designed and delivered by top employers, offer young people real, paid jobs for at least 12 months with meaningful training - creating the skilled professionals of tomorrow.
The building blocks of adult life
All of this work is designed to make sure that our vocational education is truly world class.
But the most important vocational skills are simple. Good maths and English.
They are essential in every job - from professors to plumbers, fighter pilots to firefighters.
But under the old system, 300,000 18-year-olds were starting adult life without crucial English and maths GCSE at grades A* to C, every single year.
Without, in other words, the bare minimum that most colleges or employers would demand as a matter of course.
Once they fell behind at 16, the overwhelming majority had fallen behind for good.
Fewer than 1 in 10 young people who didn’t achieve at least a C in maths or English GCSE at the age of 16 went on to reach that level by age 19. More than 90% never managed to catch up.
No wonder that fewer than a quarter of adults in this country have the maths skills we expect of our 16-year-olds - or only just over half in English.
Last year, the OECD released a sobering verdict on the scale of England’s problems.
It found that 16- to 24-year-olds in this country are among the least literate and numerate in the developed world.
Out of 24 nations, they ranked 22nd for literacy, and 21st for numeracy. England was the only country in the survey where young people performed no better in English and maths than their grandparents, whose education finished many decades before.
English and maths at the heart of our system
So we are putting English and maths right at the heart of our education system.
English and maths GCSEs are being reformed, for first teaching in schools from September 2015, to make them more stretching and more ambitious - with a greater focus on problem solving in maths, and spelling and grammar in English.
Our new 16 to 19 study programmes - building on the Wolf Review’s recommendations - ensure that students who don’t get at least a C in English and maths GCSE by age 16 must keep on working towards them.
From September this year, these higher requirements for maths and English will become a condition of 16 to 19 funding - and it’s been great to see how well 16 to 19 providers are responding.
By linking the education system much more closely to the world of work: with more relevant, respected qualifications, more employer influence over courses, and more focus on English and maths for all students, we are - at long last - ensuring that all young people, no matter what path they choose, get the best possible start in life.
We will close the great divide between vocational and academic education.
No longer are we allowing thousands of young people to be left behind, or left out.
This is an economic necessity. But more than that, it is a matter of social justice. Clear pathways. Straightforward choices between high-quality, valuable courses. Bringing together vital knowledge, skills and behaviours. That is our policy, and the goal to help every child - every child - reach their potential.