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Mayor Burnham calls for revolution in technical education

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaking at the recent Northern Transport Summit.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says technical education has been seen as “a second class option” for too long and it is time to give it true parity with academic study, writes Andy Walker.

Greater Manchester elected mayor Andy Burnham says he wants to end the “stigma linked to the class system” around technical education.

Burnham, who has just been named in the number one spot in the North West Business Insider Power List rankings, said that the region should turn its back on “class-system bias” which he blames for university qualifications being prized over apprenticeships and work experience.

During his mayoral campaign he pledged to implement a new drive to raise the status of technical education. “When traditional industry left in the 80s and 90s, so did the quality trainee schemes that had provided a ladder for working-class young people,” said Burnham. “But, sadly, the English education system did not respond to this seismic change. Instead, for decades, national education policy obsessed on the university route and left young people wanting technical skills feeling distinctly second-class,” he said.

Burnham said that Germany proved that a modern economy could not be built by side-lining technical skills and that his goal was to provide the same clarity for young people who want technical qualifications as those on the university route by establishing “a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships across Greater Manchester”.

“Governments of all colours failed to give priority to technical education,” said Burnham. “There is a stigma linked to the class system. It's ingrained to think of apprenticeships as a second-class option, because the decision-makers all went to university. We should be following the German model, with academic and technical education valued equally. Through devolution we have to take the opportunity to do things for ourselves. It's about true parity between academic and technical to give hope to all students,” he said.

Burnham said that the apprenticeship levy, launched in April, was a “good start but not the only show in town” and he’d like to see it broadened into a skills levy for people who want to retrain.

The Greater Manchester mayor has long advocated for raising the profile and status of technical education. When he stood for the Labour leadership in 2015 he said then that governments of all parties had ignored the 50% of school leavers that do not go to university. He believes that there needs to be a “revolution in technical education” that includes the extension of financial support.

Burnham’s said his ambition was to create a system where young people to be able to find out and apply for apprenticeships in exactly the same way as people apply for university. “My ambition is for a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships, raising sights, rewarding those who work hardest, giving all children hope and a goal in life,” he said. He is pressing the government to pilot the idea first in Greater Manchester and provide partnership funding.

It’s clear that Burnham sees devolved government as an opportunity to implement his plans and he is keen to work with businesses and the education sector to make them a reality. “With the challenge of Brexit, we can’t afford to wait for Westminster to deliver for us,” he said. “We may end up waiting for ever. That is why we need to seize our destiny in our own hands and develop a shared 20-year plan for the re-industrialisation of Greater Manchester.”

Speaking at a recent apprenticeships conference in Manchester Burnham pledged to oversee the development of an enhanced UCAS-style application system. The system will guarantee to only offer quality apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities, alongside other high quality training and skills development.  

Firms in the construction and infrastructure sector will welcome the new mayor’s focus on technical skills and also his recent pledges on transport priorities for Greater Manchester including devolution of railway stations, plans to improve cycling infrastructure, making rail more attractive to passengers and the launch of smart ticketing.

Speaking at the Northern Transport Summit in June, Burnham called on the government to commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail (HS3), which would link the cities of the north, calling it a “game changer” for the region. He also said that the government should integrate the plans with proposals to bring HS2 to the region.

Burnham said that transport in the north was at capacity following years of under-investment, and transport infrastructure projects would be the catalyst for bringing the Northern Powerhouse “back to life”.