Ministers have been accused of treating vocational qualifications as an “after-thought”, after announcing a major overhaul of courses and proposing to downgrade their importance in performance league tables.
According to the plans, teenagers in England will be offered three new courses in construction and four in engineering, developed by a committee of employers, exam boards, representatives from colleges and universities, and professional bodies.
The move is reminiscent of the Diploma, which was effectively scrapped by the coalition three years ago after it withdrew funding and support for an expansion of the programme in 2010.
At the same time, the government launched a consultation over plans to exclude up to 90 per cent of vocational qualifications from post-16 league tables, because ministers claim they fail to progress youngsters into employment or higher education.
Currently about 4,000 courses are included in league tables and almost half, 48 per cent, of all 16 to 19-year-olds take at least one – an increase of 18 per cent since 2008.
Vocational qualifications have already been downgraded from GCSE league tables and from 2014, only 70 equivalents will count in school rankings. Among those subjects removed from inclusion were fish husbandry, nail technology and horse care.
Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, said: “For vocational education to be valued and held in high esteem we must be uncompromising about its quality. Vocational qualifications must be stretching and strong.”
He added that currently “too many students are spending time working hard, but getting nowhere”.
“This is not their fault. The vocational courses they are taking have limited value in the jobs market. But because they count equally in the performance tables, they appear to have the same value. This is not true.”
The plans were criticised by Labour, teaching unions and educationalists. Karen Buck, shadow minister for young people, said: “Vocational education is little more than an after-thought for this government.
“They need to do more than simply focus on tweaking league tables. They need to give more young people the chance to study and progress through rigorous vocational courses. This government has no plan for people staying on in education to age 18.”
Ms Buck added that Labour favours a “gold standard” Technical Baccalaureate at 18, with courses accredited by employers to ensure quality and rigour.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is not clear how the new qualifications fit in with existing qualifications or proposed changes to A level and to the curriculum.
“We desperately need a coherent policy from the government on qualifications and curriculum. At the moment this is sorely lacking.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: “All 16 to 19-year-olds need vocational skills irrespective of whether they are taking vocational qualifications. Young people need the option of being able to study both vocational and academic subjects.
“Once again the government fails to have a joined-up and coherent policy for what it wants school and college education to do for young people. It also seems to be totally indifferent to the impact this change will have on pupils and on their teachers and lecturers.
“We are puzzled by the government’s plan to report different qualifications separately.”
Jan Hodges, chief executive of the Edge Foundation, which campaigns for and promotes technical, practical and vocational learning, said: “We want high quality vocational qualifications to achieve parity alongside other educational routes and part of the focus must be on ensuring recognised qualifications are of value for students, which is why we welcome the government’s partnership with professional bodies to develop courses in engineering and construction for 14 to 16-year-olds.
“However, our concern is that discounting nine out of 10 qualifications from post-16 league tables is hugely disproportionate and limits the number of routes to success for young people.
“Our own research, carried out in partnership with the IPPR, shows that changes to league tables, such as those proposed, lead to a reduction in the provision of learning by doing. This is despite the fact that four out of five senior teachers believe that vocational qualifications provide a firm foundation for school-leavers to join the world of work.”
Meanwhile, Kath Grant, head of qualifications development at awarding body ASDAN, said: “We welcome the proposal in its ambition for good education but wonder if the goalposts are being shifted, so narrowing what should be a broad and balanced study programme.”