Post Wolf: W(h)ither vocational education and training?

Simply providing more apprenticeships and vocational options for young people won’t solve our education problems, says Geoff Hayward.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Newsom report, Half our Future1, concerned with the education of children of ‘average’ and ‘less-than-average’ ability. Of course the early 1960s were very different: not least there was a more buoyant labour market for young people. Nonetheless, despite 50 years of reform to develop alternatives for what Newsom’s committee called ‘our children’, the main findings of the report resonate eerily today:

  • The need for a more skilled workforce
  • An inadequate supply of high quality apprenticeships
  • Falling behind our competitors economically and educationally
  • Concerns over literacy and numeracy skills
  • How to encourage a greater proportion of young people to stay in education and training longer.

How to educate ‘our children’ and equip them for an increasingly uncertain future remains, therefore, an urgent question.

Vocational vexations

Alison Wolf’s 2011 Review of Vocational Education identified serious problems with the preferred policy solution of providing more ‘vocational’ alternatives for these students. Such courses, while perhaps interesting to young people, tend not to support progression within education or to the labour market2.  A knee jerk reaction would be another round of vocational education and training (VET) reform. But a key finding of the Nuffield 14-19 Review was that such policy ‘busyness’ is counter-productive.

We know from research into countries such as Germany and Austria that VET, whether apprenticeship or school-based, works best when integrated with labour markets underpinned by licences to practise and overseen by powerful employer and employee organisations3.  Yet such regulation is anathema to UK governments committed to labour market deregulation. I do not believe we can ever achieve any parity of esteem between vocational and general qualifications under such circumstances. We should stop therefore talking about achieving such an outcome and focus on providing an alternative general education pathway for ‘our children’.

Cutting back dead wood

This is not to suggest that where high quality apprenticeships or other level 3 vocational programmes exist they should not be supported. But the public finances should not bear the dead weight costs associated with spreading ‘apprenticeship’ into jobs where skill demands are low, i.e. below level 3. Either raise the skill demand of such jobs, a matter of industrial policy, or stop the subsidy. The money saved should then be invested into forming a proper alternative general education provision.

This must focus on the achievement of genuine level 2 learning outcomes by age 16, 17 or 18. I endorse the view that such achievement must be in cognate areas that matter, such as literacy and numeracy, and lead to substantial qualifications that carry titles such as mathematics and English. Such qualifications could form the basis of an alternative general education that employs a more practical approach to learning but with robust and demanding content and external assessment.  The practical focus could come from linking such qualifications to a vocational area such as engineering, travel and tourism, or administrative work.

This is the approach adopted successfully, for example, in the Austrian Handelsakademie, employing a practically-based pedagogy found in the best diploma programmes.

But let us not beat about the bush: what we would be providing young people with is general - not vocational - education at level 2. It is the general knowledge and skills developed through such programmes that are more likely to ensure progression than yet more faux vocational provision.

Political will is required for this to happen. In particular, enabling more children to reach the gold standard of 5 A*-C GCSEs is possible within a criterion referenced examination system. This should be celebrated, not denigrated as a diminution of standards. Getting this message across will require both political courage and cross party consensus. But I believe this is essential to achieve a society that includes rather than excludes half our future in yet another 50 years’ time.

Geoff Hayward is Professor of Education and Head of the School of Education at the University of Leeds. From 2003 he was a Director of the Nuffield 14-19 Review of Education and Training.

  1. Ministry of Education (1963). Half Our Future, London: HMSO. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
  2. A. Wolf (2011). Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf Report, London: Department for Education. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
  3. Brockmann, C., Clarke, L. & Winch, C. (2011). Knowledge, Skills and Competence in the European Labour Market, London: Routledge.

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