For several decades, education policy in the UK has failed seriously to address the critical issue of technical and vocational education and training, resulting in skills shortages in the economy and the underdevelopment of talent. Research by Professor Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s Business School has investigated the root causes of this problem and contributed to three major government education reviews.
The recommendations put forward by Professor Wolf have led to policy reforms that have increased the proportion of students who achieve important qualifications in Maths and English, resulted in the creation of new national technical qualifications and paved the way for a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement that will, from 2025, give people flexibility in how and when they access tertiary education. She continues to shape the government’s skills policy as an expert adviser to the Prime Minister.
The Wolf Report: changing government policy on GCSE requirements
In 2011 Professor Wolf carried out a Review of Vocational Education for which she was awarded a CBE and a cross-bench life peerage.
A key finding by Professor Wolf was that schools and colleges were disincentivised to support resits of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams usually taken by students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at 16.i Students who did not pass their GCSEs by age 16 were given no further opportunities to do so. Since literacy and numeracy are highly valued by all employers and ‘pass’ grades (A*-C) in GCSE English and Mathematics act as important gateways to later opportunities, the Wolf Review recommended that all students aged 16–19 years who had not yet achieved these key qualifications should continue to work towards them.
As a result, the proportion of 16–18 year-olds going on to achieve passes in GCSE Mathematics and English rose from nine per cent of the cohort in 2014 to 21 per cent in 2018.
The Sainsbury Review: developing new pathways for technical training
The Wolf Report led to an important policy debate on how to tackle the shortcomings it identified in the UK vocational education system. In 2014 an Independent Panel on Technical and Professional Education, was appointed, chaired by Lord Sainsbury. Baroness Wolf was the panel’s only academic expert and co-authored the report which drew extensively on her research.
Its main recommendation was the creation of two distinct full-time educational pathways post-16: an academic pathway, and a technical one. It also recommended a major streamlining of the existing system of more than 13,000 technical qualifications, most of which were taken by very few people and little recognised by employers, to 15 ‘routes’ encompassing technical education qualifications between GCSE-equivalent and just below the level of a Bachelor’s degree. The review also recommended that government funding should be provided for only the highest quality qualifications valued by employers.
The recommendations of the Sainsbury Review formed a large part of the government’s Post-16 Skills Plan which was implemented after the 2015 election, including creating new “T-level” qualifications for students at 16+. The first students enrolled in September 2020.
The Plan also led to the restructuring of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which ensures high-quality apprenticeship and funding standards and has responsibility for overseeing and delivering the 15 core technical routes mandated by the Technical and Further Education Act of 2017.
The Augar Review: reforming non-university post-18 education
Growing concern within the government about the decline in higher-level technical education, low and falling wage returns to some degrees, and skills shortages led to the creation of the ‘Independent Review of Post-18 Education and Funding’ headed by Philip Augar. This was the first government review since the 1960s to address post-18 education as a whole and reported in 2019.
Professor Wolf was one of the Review panel’s six members, and her research was instrumental to its recommendations for better aligning government support for post-18 education and training routes and the returns they produce for the labour market.
Some of the Review’s key recommendations directly reflect her research, notably its call for a single lifetime tertiary education entitlement. Individuals would be able to draw down this loan in installments of their own choosing and the increased flexibility is intended to stimulate improvements in the quality, openness and employment relevance of post-18 education. In September 2020, the Prime Minister committed to this policy as part of a package of education and skills reforms, and the Skills and Post -16 Education Bill that will enable the creation of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement was introduced into Parliament in May 2021.
The Augar Review also called for a general balancing of educational expenditure towards the technical and vocational education and training provided by Further Education colleges and institutions, arguing that it had been seriously underfunded for many years compared to university education. This is now a stated objective of the current government, which in its 2019 Budget committed to a large capital increase and a National Skills Fund worth £2,500,000,000 for further education and skills training over five years.