College review offers clarity but concern expressed

Separation of academic and technical education could damage horticulture learning.

Students will have to choose between academic or technical pathway under reforms
Students will have to choose between academic or technical pathway under reforms

The Sainsbury review of college education reforms could simplify land-based education, making qualifications easier to understand and more attractive to employers as well as potential students, but separating academic and technical education could damage horticulture learning, according to land-based college body Landex.

The reforms from the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills are based on the recommendations of an independent panel on technical education chaired by Lord Sainsbury.

After they have completed GCSEs, students will have to choose whether to take an academic or technical pathway. Technical pathways involve a two-year college-based programme with work experience or an employment-based apprenticeship programme, both followed by possible higher technical education, a degree apprenticeship or a higher apprenticeship.

The "streamlined" plans will replace what the Government describes as the "current outdated system of more than 20,000 courses provided by 160 different organisations". The first routes will be made available for students who sit their GCSEs in 2019.

In the Post-16 Skills Plan, published alongside the Sainsbury panel's report, skills minister Nick Boles said: "We accept and will implement all of the Sainsbury panel's proposals, unequivocally where that is possible within budget constraints."

The new Institute for Apprenticeships will bring together expert groups to set the content and standards for each of the 15 routes. Each qualification at levels 2 and 3 will be awarded by a single awarding body or consortium "following an open competition", rather than the current market, which sees awarding bodies competing with one another. There will be one qualification for each occupation. This means that by 2020 there will be a single provider of horticulture qualifications rather than multiple providers such as City & Guilds or Pearson.

Landex chief executive Chris Moody said the review "fits very closely the pattern of land-based education we have already" with a high progression rate of students following technical route level 2-3 into higher education, which "doesn't tend to be replicated in other areas".

But he added: "The significant difference is greater separation of the two strands than we would want to see. The distinction between academic and technical would make it more difficult than currently for students on level 3 technical courses to take the academic route. A bridging pathway is proposed but is a potential additional barrier and extra hoop, which is potentially quite damaging. We need parity and not to be regarded as totally different and to need a bridge."

Moody said he backs a single set of qualifications in each route. "We'd welcome that because at the moment there are 14 awarding bodies in land-based," he explained. "In some cases two or three are awarding the same type of qualification, which makes it incredibly complicated for employers to understand what they're getting. It would be much better for a period of time to have one set of gold-standard qualifications."

But Moody said proposing a competitive process with a licence given to one awarding body could be "quite difficult to implement". He added: "With commercial organisations offering qualifications, the idea of them losing them for a period of time is not going to go down well and could result in things like judicial reviews.

"But the principle of simplifying and making them more transparent to students and employers is good. Certainly this would make qualifications more understandable. Employers say qualifications are too broad with too much repetition and they are not transparent enough. I think the review will be implemented in part but it will be very difficult to implement some elements, particularly in qualifications. At the moment pilots are planned for 2019-20 so it would go mainstream in 2020-21, and that's in another Parliament."

Reaction - College principal warns one size does not fit all sectors

Capel Manor College principal Steve Dowbiggin has said his concern about the Sainsbury review is that "one size does not fit all" sectors. He added that simplification would be "great but not at the cost of ability to meet the specific needs of the sector".

Splitting academic and technical could be damaging to the sector because it is perceived as non-academic and "the brightest students will try and be academic first", he explained.

Dowbiggin said that in his experience reviews such as Sainsbury will have an impact but will not be implemented as written.

Capel is in a good position to adapt to any changes because it uses standard qualifications, he said, but he is concerned that "important qualifications such as all RHS qualifications don't really fit into the Sainsbury framework but are crucial to the sector, particularly for career changers".

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