The announcement of a further £500m a year for 16-19 technical education made in the Budget this week, along with a 50% rise in the training provided to a total of 900 hours per year from 2019, has been warmly welcomed by business, industry and in education.
It is about time technical education got the investment in its foundations to compete with the best Vocational Education and Training (VET) systems around the world.
The Chancellor’s announcement produces 15 new ‘world class routes’ of ‘equal value to A Levels’ to ‘prepare school and college leavers for the changing job market’.
There have been similar announcements before, dozens of them in fact, over several decades, and almost every time the promise has been to ‘achieve parity of esteem’ with A levels and the pathways to higher education. This time is no different, with the Chancellor once more promising ‘parity of esteem’. The fact that this is the section of the speech highlighted by broadcast media underlines a commonly held view that this is an unrealistic expectation, at least in the medium term. A levels remain a gold standard to so many.
But there is a more readily achievable prize to be found in the section of the speech where equality of value and not esteem is emphasised.
The importance of technical skills in enhancing productivity is understood by economists but more importantly, is declared publicly every time employers invest in developing their employees.
The vital role that the professions can play in achieving social mobility is also well understood.
The engineering profession has always maintained a VET route into the highest levels of engineering and as a result, has kept a clear line of sight to good wages for those who choose a technical pathway to professional engineering and the career prospects that go with it.
That is a technical route with real value. Regardless of where a young person starts, they can access a professional career with no limit on how far they can go.
Shining a light on that pathway by making it one of the 15 announced today, backed with the additional resources to ensure the training is world-class, is a prize to reach for right now. Parity of esteem can come later.
Matthew Harrison is chair of the Advisory Group for the Centre for Engineering Education, a joint initiative between the UCL Faculty of Engineering and the Institute of Education.