Charting new territories

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has launched ‘Transitions at age 14’ – an investigation into the changing landscape of education for 14 to 19 year olds – funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Lena Gray, CERP’s Head of Research, reflects on the first meeting of the research advisory group

Vocational studentIt’s warm; the Underground is packed and it’s only lunchtime. Both of these things are strange to me: I come from a small town on the west coast of Scotland. I am on my way to the first meeting of an advisory group that will help steer a major research project entitled ‘Transitions at age 14’.

In the not-so-distant past, I migrated from the aforementioned small town to the North of England. In Scotland there are no academies, no free schools, no studio schools. Sitting in meetings with my new team, not wanting to constantly interrupt with my daft lassie questions, it was at least a month before I plucked up the courage to ask, ‘What’s a UTC?’ I added it to my list of new TLAs. It is not a cliché to say we are divided by a common language.

In vocational qualifications, though, the big issues are the same. They persist across countries, cultures, and decades. In the four nations of the UK, in many parts of Europe – and increasingly in countries across the world – vocational education and qualifications are seen as a problem that needs to be fixed. The problem may be approached from different angles, perhaps with a stress on skills to boost the economy, or alternatively with an emphasis on the need for education and training that meets the needs of a whole spectrum of learners. More often, though, the economic and the educational arguments are mixed up, and it is assumed that anything that helps educate individuals will automatically aid the economy – and vice versa.

In this country, the words that fly around are familiar ones. During my 30-year career in education, vocational qualifications for 14 to 19 year olds may have come and gone, but the lexicon has remained constant. ‘Broad’ and ‘applied’. ‘Relevant’, ‘flexible’, ‘responsive to needs’. ‘Transferable skills’ and ‘progression pathways’. But most of all – again and again and again – ‘rigorous’. Not ‘Education, education, education’, or even ‘Skills, skills, skills’, but ‘Rigour, rigour, rigour’. The debates tend to assume that it is the qualifications that need to be fixed, and the dominant mode of ‘fixing’ them is often to make them more like academic qualifications. It is believed that changing the assessment regime will somehow change the status of the qualifications. Hence, as David Raffe points out, since 1986, England has had NVQs, GNVQs, AVCEs, Vocational A-levels, Diplomas, an NQF, a QCF, Applied A-levels… and the alphabet soup thickens.

Refreshingly, this project is not about vocational qualifications, but about the institutions in which they are offered

Refreshingly, this project is not about vocational qualifications, but about the institutions in which they are offered. In an already diverse system, the past few years have seen a burgeoning of types of institution offering education and training to young people. It’s a reminder that no matter how good our qualifications, no matter how valid and reliable our assessments, they can only serve their purpose for individuals and society when they are part of an effective system in which institutional structures,  practical support, individual values and societal cultures all fit together. For the system to work, we all have to want the same things, not just awarding organisations, civil servants and politicians, but more crucially, learners, parents, schools and colleges, and employers. Only when we have consensus of the aims of our vocational education and qualifications system can we work out the best means to achieve those aims. This project will help to illuminate some of those issues.

The meeting was another learning experience for me. There were familiar faces and new people to meet. The discussion was lively, informed and seemed committed to finding out how to do the best we can for the young people served by the system. The project’s scope and methodologies will be broad: they will include data analysis, interviews and literature reviews. Policy memory is promised. One of my eminent colleagues on the group, Professor Jeremy Higham, has warned of the dangers of ‘policy amnesia’. We need projects like these to gather evidence on what works, and why it works. We need to learn lessons from other places and from our own recent past, not so that we can recycle old or imported ideas, but so that we can better understand the complex dynamics of our current situation. If we do not do this, we risk playing with the futures of another group of young people.

I look forward with anticipation to further lively debates with my colleagues on this advisory group.

Lena Gray

Jonathan Clifton, Senior Research Fellow at IPPR and Transitions at age 14’s Project Director will share his thoughts on the initial findings later this year

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