The secrets to vocational success


Earlier this year, West Lakes Academy was ranked second in the country in the league tables for post-16 vocational qualifications. David Halliday discusses the key steps on their road to vocational success.

West Lakes Academy in West Cumbria has a dedicated 6th form centre which can provide education to up to 250 year 12 and year 13 students who choose to study for a range of A level and BTEC qualifications.

The 6th form itself is part of the school’s new £26 million building in the small market town of Egremont and attracts students from across the wider borough.

I became quality nominee (an internal verifier who checks the quality/standards of work of other teachers delivering BTEC courses) in September 2008 upon the formation of the academy (which involved the amalgamation of two schools). There was a clear drive and determination to improve standards and attainment across the academy and vocational courses were an integral part of this process.

In 2008 our vocational offer was limited, student performance was below average across the board and students and staff were experiencing a state of flux as two local schools merged and tried to find their way as one.

The recently published league tables shows the progress we have made over the past five years, particularly with our post-16 vocational programmes. 

West Lakes Academy was placed second in the country for its advanced vocational results, the national secondary school league tables revealed. The annual tables show how each school has performed at key stage four and five and compares achievements to other schools nationally. To achieve this position has taken a lot of hard work and a number of different strategies.

Integrity of recruitment 

This is the starting point. It is all about getting the right learners on the right courses at the right level. We expect learners to have achieved a Merit at Level 2 in the vocational subjects they choose to study in the 6th form.

This way we know that learners are already familiar with the approach of a vocational course, where the ability to produce assignments at the required standard on a regular and consistent basis is prerequisite to success. Such an approach is re-enforced by a rigorous induction programme where we assess learners’ suitability for their courses and their potential to achieve to the highest level of their ability in them. By doing so, we have to be flexible in the early part of the academic year to direct learners onto courses where they are likely to achieve. We follow this up with termly reviews of registrations for our vocational courses and by making adjustments where necessary. 

Vocational team meetings

These are scheduled in the school calendar of meetings at least termly and are essential in helping to inculcate consistency across the range of vocational courses, where nine subject areas are involved. 

In my early days as quality nominee, these meetings tended to be directed and “top down” until we had established procedures and consistency across subject teams. Now they are much more participative and a genuine forum for professional dialogue and sharing best practice. Likewise I ensure I attend Quality Nominee Networking Meetings as these are fundamental to the role in terms of keeping up-to-date with latest developments and for the networking opportunities they provide. Vocational team meetings then provide an opportunity to cascade information across the subject teams.

Tracking/monitoring database

This is the key element behind the progress our vocational students make. The real credit for this must go to our head of ICT, Paul Crickmore. Over the years he has developed a database that is a “one-stop-shop” for all our vocational courses. 

In the early days one spreadsheet was sufficient and tracking was done by individual student tracking sheets. This worked fine for one group on one course, but as the popularity of the course increased a second spreadsheet was needed to track student progress.

This also worked fine for a couple of years as a one-man band department. Once the department grew enough for a second pair of hands we ran into the problem of a head of department tracking progress for groups they never saw, and all staff being able to see the progress of students in shared groups.

At this point the first incarnation of a tracking database appeared. All assignment details were now held centrally. All details on which assignment was issued to which student at what time and their progress on each assignment was now centralised.

Splitting the database into a front-end and back-end allowed multiple access – teachers could issue new assignments and record outcomes for each criteria and the head of department could check the progress of any student in the database.

With a growing determination to improve performance, senior staff started asking for more complex information on individual student progress. This is where the database really came into its own, with the right queries and the right reports almost any piece of progress information imaginable could be produced, such as percentage through course, percentage pass criteria completed, likely outcome and so on. 

We are therefore able to identify learners where intervention strategies are needed at an early stage. It also enables us to produce a print-out of exactly which assignments students need to complete or improve to achieve or exceed their target grade. 

The latest modification is a colour-coded progress sheet which we share with the learners. It is amazing how competitive the students can be in wanting to be the first to complete their columns and this has proven to be a highly effective motivational tool, particularly for boys.


Just as we are required to treat learners as individuals and adapt teaching and learning strategies to suit differing needs, the role of quality nominee requires one to take into account the differences between departments. It is therefore vital to hit a pragmatic balance between having common systems and practice across all subject areas to ensure we fully meet all quality assurance requirements, while accommodating the essential differences between them. 

What works for one department may be anathema to another so it is neither desirable nor feasible to have everyone doing the same thing all the time. We have succeeded by getting department teams to buy into the benefits of the systems we have set up, such as the database, rather than imposing these upon them when they cannot see their purpose.

The outcome

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the different strategies we use in the school to ensure our learners achieve but it does give an indication of a culture of continuous improvement that has enabled us to make the progress we have over the past five years.

In 2013, 86 per cent of our students following higher vocational courses achieved or exceeded their target grades, an increase of six per cent on the previous year and our average point score per vocational student was 1010.9 placing us second in the country in the latest league table (it should be said that at the same time the academy also performed well at GCSE level with results for five GCSE A* to C grades including English and maths above the Cumbrian average and now having improved for the last five years).

There is no magic formula for vocational success but it almost goes without saying that it takes a lot of hard work, commitment and dedication from all the teachers and learners on our vocational programmes to deliver the results we have achieved.

  • David Halliday, is head of business studies and quality nominee at West Lakes Academy in West Cumbria.



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