Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Vocational vacuum: we need more than sneers and Aunt Sallies

I have no idea how many young people inflated their GCSE league table scores by doing horse care or fish husbandry qualifications. But I do know that the combined impact of removing the 'thousands' of courses no longer recognised for their GCSE equivalence by Michael Gove yesterday will be pretty minimal. There are two reasons why. First, most of the improvements since 1997 - an increase in numbers gaining 5 good GCSEs or equivalents, including English and Maths, from 35 to 58 per cent, were the result of a big improvement in the numbers gaining Maths and English GCSEs, and not the result of gaming or of vocational qualifications. A quick look at the DFE's own data confirms this to be the case. And second, those that used vocational qualifications, often to encourage improvements in English and Maths by gaining confidence in a more practical course first, tended to use BTECs and OCRs, which will remain valid in a significant and welcome retreat by the Government, although less valuable in the league tables.

But these facts were a little beyond the slightly hysterical reports on the BBC News and the breathless sneering of John Humphrys yesterday morning. In the process, they left unanswered the question that has been ducked constantly by this Government over what vocational qualifications should be available to 14-16 year-olds and how they should be delivered. Alison Wolf doesn't really think that practical courses have much place before 16, and she would limit their role to 20% of the curriculum, whilst arguing simultaneously that more students should be taught full-time in further education colleges from the age of 14. Lord Baker was on the radio this morning waxing lyrically about his university technical colleges, declaring that 40% of their course content would be practical. UTCs take students from ages 14 to 19. His disdain for Wolf's position on this issue is no secret in Whitehall; the feeling is said to be mutual.

At the same time, beyond the grudging acceptance of BTECs and OCRs implicit in yesterday's supposed cull, the Government has little sense of what should be available to young people turned off by academic subjects at an earlier stage. The English Baccalaureate subjects have plenty to commend them for perhaps a majority of students, but achieving English and Maths with more practical courses may be a better goal for others. Labour's Diplomas generally became too complex and never took off, though some like ICT and engineering had industry credibility. Perhaps we now need, in addition to the BTECs, a new range of junior apprenticeships, with real progression built in, and clearly linked to proper career paths. But start them at 14 - with English and Maths - and not at 16. That's where Wolf's FE college proposals could play a big role.

But for now, the Government has really nothing useful or constructive to say about vocational education. Alison Wolf claimed that young people were being betrayed by qualifications of little value in later life. Perhaps they were. But they are certainly going to be betrayed a lot more if the Government can't get its act together to recognise the need for good practical alternatives for those who may sway the ranks of the truants and excluded if their needs are not met within the education system in good time.


hartonislander said...

Heartfelt agreement, Conor. I have three children, two of whom sailed through conventional academic routes to degrees at Oxford and Nottingham respectively. The third struggled throughout secondary education and left, at 16, despite all her earnest efforts, with a clutch of very poor GCSEs. She went on to do a Level 2 animal care course at an FE college, as a direct result of which she has not had a day out of gainful employment since; she’s now 30 and managing a boarding cattery. Which qualifications betrayed her?

JoeN said...

So how do you square this with the conversation I had not so long ago with the head teacher of an Ofsted outstanding school, who was not only openly proud of the way she gamed the system, but told me hardly any of her pupils ever even sat a formal exam at all.