Thursday, 3 March 2011

Striking the vocational balance

I am something of a fan of Prof Alison Wolf's acerbic and polemic approach to education and the labour market, which is why I invited her to contribute to two volumes of essays that I edited for think tanks in the past. And there is much that is good in her eminently readable report (pdf) on vocational education today, even if it may not all be welcomed in the exam industry. Some vocational qualifications are not good enough; quality needs to be improved. Good work-based apprenticeships need to be more widely available. A better league table balance needs to be struck. Ministers should be explicit about which qualifications will be accredited. Colleges should be able to admit young people full-time from 14, freed to respond to local labour market demand and college lecturers freer to teach in schools. All young people should be expected to work towards GCSE grade Cs - or genuine equivalent- in English and Maths if they don't get them at 16. She is also absolutely right to argue that institutions should be funded per student rather than per course (though the extra costs of some high-tech courses may need consideration).

But there is one significantly misguided asssumption in her overall prescription, and the Government will be making a mistake if it adopts her ideas unquestioningly. As was obvious from Lord Baker's dismissal of her report this morning on Today, the notion of just 20% of the curriculum for 14-16 year-olds being available for practical education runs directly counter to the need from strong vocational or practical routes available from the age of 14, including through Baker's planned university technical colleges. If we leave it until 16 before enabling young people to take a significant number of useful practical courses, they will simply disengage from education. And that disengagement could be for 4 years as compulsory participation extends to 18, not just 2 as now. Of course, they should learn English and Maths, and science - though a good applied GCSE standard qualification is needed for the latter - and there should be a strong emphasis on communication, written and oral, in English.

I have long argued in favour of pre-apprenticeships from 14 as a way of achieving this, something the Labour government started but lost interest in as the Diploma was developed. Of course, we also need a better weeding out of poor qualifications - Ofqual should be ruthless on this score - as well as a kitemarking of those that are good. But there are good BTECs and Diplomas and it would be unfair if all were tarred with the same brush (even if, to be fair, the detail of Wolf's report rather than its reporting doesn't do so, particularly at level 3). And we need to find ways to involve employers in providing worthwhile work experience that makes those on such courses job ready.

But there is a second significant misunderstanding in the Wolf analysis. Many academies and other schools use vocational qualifications not only to engage otherwise disaffected young people or even improve league table rankings, but also to encourage them to gain good GCCEs in English and Maths. (Incidentally, by using 2005 rather than 2010 data, she claims that less than 50% of pupils achieve English and Maths GCSEs by the end of Key Stage 4: in fact the latest DFE statistics show that 53.4% do so, with 57% gaining GCSE or equivalent in both subjects. This is the result of an explicit change to the league tables made by Labour in 2005. I do hope her other statistics are more robust.) They would do so regardless of the league table rankings, though there should be appropriate recognition of kitemarked vocational qualifications in the tables. By discouraging any pre-16 vocational qualifications, Prof Wolf is making it harder to achieve her entirely laudable goal of every young person achieving GCSE English and Maths. Moreover, Level 1 and Level 2 qualifications may not in themselves lead to jobs, but they can lead young people onto further qualifications that do. Progression matters too, and any kitemarking should be linked to this.

And while it is true that other countries that offer vocational education also require an academic core - including English where it is not the first language - they are also much more successful in striking the right balance, often from the age of 15. The danger in the message from today's report is that it will tilt the education system so far away from pre-16 vocational or practical education that it not only creates a large new cohort of truants but that it makes it much harder to avoid them from becoming NEETs.

So, while the Government should certainly embrace Prof Wolf's demands for higher quality qualifications and more apprenticeships, it must not lose sight of the need to provide an offer that is attractive and useful for those that would otherwise truant and those who have a more practical aptitude than others. It was good to hear Wolf lauding hairdressing as well as engineering and constuction courses on Today this morning; but we also need to find ways of preparing young people for the wide range of jobs in the leisure and tourism industries. If the qualifications there are not strong enough, they should be improved not abandoned. And there should also be a place for rigorous practical courses in subjects like languages, showing their relevance to jobs in tourism and business, as Baker's UTCs propose. None of this is to downplay the importance of academic rigour for the majority. But it is to recognise that a genuine choice of strong academic and vocational qualifications should be available to every young person - with the right independent careers advice - from 14.

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