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By Rob May, YMCA Awards Director.

The Chancellor’s spring budget includes a glaring oversight. The pledge to pump £500 million into the introduction of new so-called ‘T-Levels’ – technical qualifications, as an alternative to A-Levels for 16 to 19-year-olds means that classroom-based vocational education routes for more than half of UK occupations have been left out in the cold.

In the spring budget statement, Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced a long-term investment in post-16 education. £100 million will be allocated in 2019/20 for the first technical level qualifications and this will rise to more than £500 million by 2022.

The definition of what constitutes a ‘technical’ occupation and what doesn’t has never been properly explained. The 15 technical routes earmarked for investment were decided by a five-member panel review of vocational education led by Labour Peer and Cambridge University Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury.

The panel’s recommendations were included in the Government’s new Post-16 Skills Plan, without consultation, by the then Skills Minister Nick Boles, who commissioned the review but then resigned shortly after publishing the plan.

Following pledges to restore the nation’s health, it came as a great surprise across the industry when it emerged that occupations in the fitness and physical activity sector had been left out of the technical education pathways for not being ‘technical enough’, a move which could drastically undermine the government’s own strategy for a more active nation and reduced strain on the NHS.

With occupations such as furniture-making, tailoring and hairdressing included, but the physical fitness industry left out, it seems obscene that we are funding education to treat the nation’s hairline rather than its waistline. This comes as a blow at a time where you are three times more likely to die from obesity than from malnutrition, when the World Health Organisation has named childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st Century, and when inactivity costs the NHS around £450-million every year.

In 2016, landmark reports from both Public Health England and Sport England targeted insufficient physical activity as one of the most important risk factors on the nation’s health burden. ‘Sporting Future’ the government’s strategy for a more active nation underlined the importance of workforce development and education to provide a highly-skilled workforce able to tackle inactivity in some of our poorest communities and work more closely with the primary healthcare system.

The £4.4-billion fitness sector isn’t just about leisure time, the sector needs a rich supply of highly-technical, trained professionals that can work with the increasing number of patients referred by GPs and to help hard-to-reach populations at grassroots level.

An unplanned outcome of the investment in T-Levels will be that colleges and training providers gravitate towards funding and stop offering courses in those neglected sectors such as fitness, sports, retailing and hospitality, de-professionalising the sector and storing up problems for future generations.

The sugar tax introduced in the budget is a promising step. A new tax on drinks with more than five grams of sugar per 100ml will be levied by 18p per litre.

The DfE is expected to receive an extra £1bn from the sugar tax, said Mr Hammond, which will go to improving health and fitness education in schools. This could bring significant health benefits, cutting rates of tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes, although predictably soft drinks manufacturers say there is no evidence this will be the case!

Overall, what we need is a properly funded skills strategy for everyone, which is aligned to the economic and health needs of the country. If the government is serious about improving the UK’s health then it needs to take a more strategic view and also invest in its future workforce now, rather than leave it to chance.