Putting innovation at the heart of the UK’s technical education

Engineer training apprentices on computer numerical control machine

How the innovation skills framework helped shape the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s (IfATE) new innovation strategy.

Innovation is everywhere

Jen Turner is a physiotherapist with over 20 years of experience in the NHS and other healthcare settings. She’s also an innovator.

In 2018, Jen founded JT Rehab, a company based on the outskirts of Sheffield that has developed a portable leg-strengthening device. Known as the S-Press, the invention helps patients go home from hospital sooner than they otherwise might. It also clearly improves patient care. This helps the NHS reduce delayed discharge costs, which amount to roughly £820 million a year.

Innovation and the skills required to make it happen may conjure up images of university labs and London-based tech start-ups. Those environments are undoubtedly an important part of the story. However, it’s examples like Jen’s that remind us that innovation is a much broader and more varied phenomenon than we might think. Especially in terms of geography, sector and the profiles of the people innovating all around us.

It’s also something that affects our daily lives in myriad ways. Take the medical researchers working on potential new cancer cures and the tech firms exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence, for example. Or local councils installing solar-powered traffic lights on our streets and  pubs offering coworking packages during quiet daytime hours.

An innovation strategy for apprenticeships and technical training

Innovation in all its forms is key for many reasons, not least because it is crucial to overcoming our environmental and societal challenges. To come up with the best possible solutions to those challenges we need to involve all our communities: every sector, region and societal group. It is therefore essential that we make sure education, especially university courses and technical training, dispenses the skills and knowledge people need to go out into the world and innovate.

A new innovation strategy for technical education launched in May 2023 by IfATE does just that. IfATE works with employers to develop apprenticeships and technical qualifications.

Their landmark strategy aims to ‘proactively work with employers, innovators and foresighters to identify emerging technology and skills and quickly embed them in […] technical education’.

Innovation skills framework

To achieve this IfATE collaborated closely with Innovate UK and specifically drew on insights from the innovation skills framework (ISF) (PDF, 4.4MB). The two organisations co-created the strategy alongside the Innovation Caucus, an organisation that provides research insights to inform innovation policy and practice.

Rosie Holden, who led IfATE’s work on the strategy, explains:

We are witnessing technological and global change at an unparalleled pace. For example, a study from McKinsey found that by 2030 nine in ten employees will need to acquire new skills. IfATE’s strategy sets out our vision for a dynamic, future-facing technical education system. It is critical that apprenticeships and technical qualifications provide the skills employers need now, and for the future.

Working in partnership with Innovate UK and the Innovation Caucus to support our understanding of the skills that support innovation has been critical in developing our strategy. Together with employers, innovators, technologists and researchers we’re identifying the emerging skills needed in apprenticeships and technical qualifications to support the economy with a skilled workforce fit for the future.

Mapping out the skills that make Innovation possible

The idea behind the ISF is to map out the skills that innovation requires. First, the ISF identifies the tasks that feed into innovation. Next, it maps out the skills needed to perform those tasks properly, grouping them into five categories: conceptual skills, implementation skills, relational skills, evaluative skills and critical self-reflection skills.

This analysis can then be used in a variety of contexts, including businesses and government policymaking. It has already had the impact of getting people committed to thinking about innovation and working it into their plans in a bigger way.

But another key idea behind the ISF is that organisations across the educational sphere will use it to make innovation-related skills a pivotal component of education and training programmes. Innovate UK is therefore thrilled to see the launch of IfATE’s new strategy and warmly welcomes the fact that the ISF features so centrally in it.

Indeed, we’re striving for a UK in which innovation is front and centre across industries. Apprenticeships and technical education are great starting points for that, not least because they feed into the skills and experiences of so many individuals in such a broad panoply of fields.

You can find an innovation skills circle on page five of the ISF (PDF, 4.4MB) that shows innovation skills organised by category.

The innovation nation and how to get there

Such developments are fully in line with the UK’s broader goals to excel at innovation. IfATE’s new strategy shows how crucial it is to think not just about innovation but about how it affects the individuals and organisations involved in it. That means the skills we have and what we can do or be but also more broadly how innovation affects our lives.

The rigour of the work that led to the ISF stems from that wide perspective, which in turn was possible thanks to the involvement of so many different players: IfATE, of course, along with Innovate UK and the academic expertise of the Innovation Caucus.

IfATE’s collaboration with Innovate UK in honing its new strategy was all about courageous and creative thinking. It presents a shining example of how innovative people and approaches lead organisations to come up with novel solutions. This adds another building block to the innovation nation we’re set to become.

Jen Nelles, Innovation Caucus said:

Developing the ISF challenged us to get specific about the innovation process and understand the tasks that support it. Ultimately it pushed us to be very specific about how we conceptualise and define skill. To present the complexity of those skills in a way that was both accessible and resonates, we had to use a lot of those skills to be innovative ourselves.

We are grateful for the involvement of IfATE and their Route Panel participants. Along with the network of Innovate UK stakeholders, who were crucial partners in helping us understand what matters in practice and help dial in how organisation would use the ISF.

Making the innovation vision a reality

If the UK is to make its vision of innovation a reality, this kind of thinking will need to become ever more commonplace. That means working with those designing and running training and skills programmes to see how they can provide people with the skills needed to innovate and react to emerging innovations. And, ultimately, we’ll need to decide what being an innovation nation means to us and the form we want it to take.

IfATE’s innovation strategy and the ISF are steppingstones to that future. Why not take a peek?

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