Vocational & academic: Working hand-in-hand


Changes to accountability have seemingly led many schools to reduce their vocational offer. Catherine Mastaglio argues that vocational education can work hand-in-hand with academia.


Last month, thousands of UK teens received their GCSE results. Pupils, parents and teachers interrupted their summer holidays and congregated at schools across the country to open that all-important envelope with shaking hands.

And what were the scores on the doors? Overall, the 2014 results show a 98.5 per cent pass rate, down 

0.3 percentage points (but with a rise in students receiving A*s). Significantly, the number of English entries dropped by more than 215,000, while the number of maths entries dropped by 76 per cent, from 170,357 down to 39,292.

It is unsurprising to see some of these changes following an unprecedented overhaul of the system. It has been a year of great transition in secondary school education with a new focus on end-point examination, (removing the earlier “January series” re-sit and modular examinations). What’s more, from September 2013, most vocational qualifications ceased to hold GCSE equivalency, so therefore no longer counted within school performance tables.

As a result of this change, perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen fewer schools offer vocational courses for pupils, demonstrating the strong link between school accountability and vocational education. Undoubtedly, the league tables have had a real impact on school’s buying decisions. At this time last year, there were around 700,000 pupils engaged in vocational education at school – a number that is likely to dip this year as schools battle to balance timetables and accountability measures with their pupils’ needs.

However, it is encouraging to see that significant growth has been recorded in certain vocational subjects, such as computing, business and IT – subjects which build useful skills, can often lead to Apprenticeships and most importantly, are highly sought-after by employers.

So what is the incentive for schools to offer vocational subjects at a time when traditional academia has been placed at the apex of the education system? Is it possible to look beyond school accountability? Is there life beyond league tables and data?

Well, at NCFE we believe that vocational qualifications can work side-by-side, hand-in-hand with academic qualifications.

In fact, vocational education within schools has long been associated with increased engagement in crucial maths and English attainment. In a study of “disengaged” pupils for the Department for Education (DfE), it was found that those taking vocational subjects were 70 per cent more likely to achieve five A* to C grades at key stage 4 than those who weren’t studying a vocational qualification (Ross 2011).

Young people’s lack of basic skills upon leaving school has been widely reported as a barrier to them finding work. However, for those students who are not naturally academically inclined, a vocational course alongside their maths and English can help them to put their literacy and numeracy skills into practice in a practical way.

The inclusion of vocational education also reduces the risk of pupils leaving the education system early with no qualifications. Most schools have personal/social/health education timetabled into the curriculum at some point, even if it is within registration time. 

During this time, students could be completing a short vocational qualification (for example in personal effectiveness or thinking skills) to support them in their wider learning. These qualifications may not be included in the league tables, but they do offer pupils a range of benefits, offering them a well-rounded education and increasing their transferable skills.

There is significant evidence to suggest that European countries with a greater proportion of students in vocational education at secondary school tend to have lower rates of youth unemployment. What’s more, the Leitch Review demonstrated that in the UK, those young people with Level 2 qualifications are 50 per cent more likely to find a job than those with no qualifications. This shows that high-quality, rigorously assessed vocational qualifications at even a slightly lower level do have good economic returns.

On behalf of the Edge Foundation, the IPPR carried out some research this year highlighting that many of the jobs expected to drive economic growth and mobility in the future will be accessible with a vocational qualification.

By 2022, there is set to be an additional 3.6 million job vacancies in mid-skilled occupations (such as accounting technicians, child-care supervisors, legal executives, radiographers), all of which employ high numbers of people with vocational qualifications at Level 3 – the standard reached through advanced Apprenticeships and many further education courses. Additionally, the skills required for nine of the 10 most in-demand occupations of the future can be attained by completing vocational qualifications.

Despite these statistics, it is unfortunate to find that research from the Edge Foundation revealed that nearly a quarter of young people have been told by parents and careers advisors that they were “too clever for vocational education”. Schools can help to challenge this myth by including vocational qualifications at the heart of what they offer to pupils, ensuring that young people can all reach their potential, whatever their skill-set.

Of course, for all schools, the ultimate aim is to be able to offer high-quality vocational provision while also maintaining school standards, rigour and quality. 

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that there is a growing range of vocational options available which carry performance points in the 2015 and 2016 key stage 4 performance tables and hold GCSE equivalency, such as the range of NCFE V Certs in creative and other subjects. These are seeing an increased take-up as schools seek alternative options.

As the dust settles on the recent DfE reforms, there is now a good number of vocational qualifications that continue to attract performance points and that will count in the new Progress 8 measures. These qualifications have been redesigned to meet the DfE criteria of which V Certs and BTECs are included. 

It is interesting to see certain case studies in the media of schools taking matters into their own hands to ensure their pupils receive a broad education. 

Keith Budge, head of Bedales School in Hampshire, has spoken openly in the press about teaching “driven by assessment” during secondary education, thus hampering pupils’ creativity. He has stated that “what you need is students who learn to think for themselves, study independently and enjoy school in these years”, commenting on the need to “stimulate curiosity” in young people. As a result, Mr Budge has sought alternative qualifications for his school rather than simply focusing upon GCSEs. 

Overall, it is likely that we will see schools continue the age-old battle of balancing the curriculum, meeting each individual pupil’s needs, and meeting accountability measures.

However, it is also seems likely that we will see more schools questioning the status quo. With the increased recognition given to alternative curriculum within the new Progress 8 measure, we may even see some increased uptake in vocational qualifications with more schools seeking to support their pupils in all areas. 

Young people are not statistics and the choices given to them at school can be life-altering. Let’s help them be more than a number.

  •  Catherine Mastaglio is qualifications development leader with awarding body NCFE.

Further information
If you would like to find out more information about the NCFE V Certs qualifications, call 0191 239 8000, visit www.ncfe.org.uk/vcerts or email schools@ncfe.org.uk. You can also visit the NCFE blog at www.ncfe.org.uk/blog


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