Spring Budget 2017: Schools funding and T-Levels welcomed

Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered pre-budget pledges yesterday to invest in education and skills by announcing an overhaul of technical qualifications and extra money for free schools and universities.

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Acknowledging the UK’s poor performance on global technical skills indices, Mr Hammond committed the government to funding a further 3 million apprentices by 2020, support for new technology training and more maintenance loans to part-time undergraduates and doctoral loans in all subjects for the first time.The plans will also see an “increase by over 50 per cent the number of hours training for 16-19 year old technical students, including a high-quality 3 month work placement for every students, so when they qualify, they are genuinely ‘work-ready’,” Mr Hammond added.

T-Levels to provide parity of esteem with A-Levels?

Mr Hammond also announced the introduction of new T-Level qualifications. These aim to simplify routes into technical roles and offer “parity of esteem” with the UK’s well-established A-Level system. Fifteen “clear, career-focused routes” will replace the current 15,000 different qualifications.Hoping to end the “lingering doubt about the parity of esteem attaching to technical education pursued through the further education route, today we end that doubt for good, with the introduction of T-Levels,” said Mr Hammond yesterday at the House of Commons' despatch box.“Thanks to the work of Lord Sainsbury, Baroness Wolf and other experts in this field, we have a blueprint to follow. Their review concluded that students need a much clearer system of qualifications.”

More funding for free schools

Mr Hammond further committed £300mn to developing research talent in STEM technologies and funding for a further 110 new free schools, adding to the current commitment to 500.“This will include new specialist maths schools to build on the clear success of Exeter Mathematics School and King’s College London Maths School – which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister visited earlier this week,” Mr Hammond said.

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Reactions to the spring budget education plans

The Chancellor's plans are being well received, albeit with some questions over how the plans will play into life-long learning, and reskilling to meet economic and techniological changes.Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “It’s great to see recognition that tackling the UK's skills challenges is a top priority. With a significant slowdown in workers coming from the EU, upskilling the UK’s existing workforce and the next generation is more vital than ever.“Technical education has been a longstanding weakness in the UK skills system. Additional investment to help to equip the next generation of workers with technical skills is therefore very welcome as we head towards post-Brexit Britain.“However, the majority of the workforce of 2030 is already in work, and whilst the £40m investment in lifelong learning is welcome, we question the balance of government spending priorities given the focus needed on helping people already in work."We look forward to hearing more about how the government is going to improve lifelong learning, to ensure employees are able to perform to their full potential at work, keep their skills up-to-date and feel challenged and motivated in their role.Leaders also voiced their concerns about whether the spending plans will be enough to meet demand.Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, the chartered institute for IT, said: “I welcome the government’s continued commitment to apprenticeships. All the evidence shows that a high-quality work placement is a key ingredient to enable students to have a successful professional career. That’s why we’re hugely supportive of these new T-Level qualifications which focus on providing that kind of placement, but the massive challenge for government is to provide enough of these high-quality placements to meet student demand.”The Universities Alliance, which represents universities educating 41 per cent of the UK’s part-time undergraduates, said the additional funds for PhD studentships are welcome alongside funds to attract researchers from overseas.“It is also positive to see a renewed emphasis on technical and professional education,” commented University Alliance chief executive, Maddalaine Ansell. “But to achieve genuine parity of esteem – which ministers say they want – they must ensure there are progression routes to degree level and above.“Rather than seeing academic and technical skills as entirely separate, Britain needs graduates who can combine high-level academic, technical and professional skills. If these are to be developed through two separate routes, there must be clear pathways between the two and an expectation that either can take you to doctorate level and beyond.”Business heads expressed concern too about whether companies will fully back the initiatives, particularly around promotion of STEM in schools and how to attract more women into technical routes.Chris Wood, CEO of specialist training provider Develop Training Limited (DTL), explained: “The Chancellor’s initiatives in the areas of training and development are to be welcomed, but their eventual effect on the UK economy may however be trivial.“Government can play a role in providing an appropriate landscape for training, but long-term solutions to the UK’s oft-noted skills gap – the need to promote STEM subjects more greatly in schools and universities and the attraction of more women into engineering and technical careers – can only be delivered effectively through the direct actions and influences of industry, not simply via edicts of the state.”

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