Report offers range of solutions to improving the standing of vocational education


The UK has long struggled to place technical and vocational education on a par with academic learning. However, a new study offers some solutions to this perennial problem. Dorothy Lepkowska takes a look.

A new study from the influential think-tank, Policy Exchange, warns that many students are suffering from a lack of an alternative to traditional academic routes and that a distinct technical and vocational route may help to reduce drop-out and disengagement.

It focuses on the high quality of vocational education on offer in other countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, where youth unemployment is much lower than in the UK.

The report – entitled Technical Matters: Building a high quality technical and vocational route through the education system – points to evidence from abroad that greater employer involvement in education at a local level “assures quality and aligns labour market needs with pupils’ studies”.

It states: “In many European countries a clear alternative route offers high quality technical or vocational provision, commanding broad respect from society and leading to meaningful employment or further/higher education. This is not the case in England.”

The study says that employer engagement with technical-vocational education is “inconsistent across the system and not all education providers offering this type of education engage employers effectively”. It wants all providers to be required to involve employers in the curriculum decisions they make.

It also calls for Apprenticeships that last three years, the same as a typical university degree, with the majority of time spent in on-the-job learning. 

Meanwhile, a new TechBacc or VocBacc qualification would sit alongside its academic sibling the EBacc and would recognise excellence in high quality technical and vocational education taken with essential core subjects. There would also be a requirement by Ofsted to inspect technical and vocational provision too, together with employability skills and the quality of careers guidance in schools.

Elsewhere, the report calls for the creation of a dedicated technical and vocational commissioning body within the Department for Education (DfE), which would facilitate meetings with relevant providers, local enterprise partnerships and regional and local skills councils to help colleges plan appropriate provision.

Crucially, the study says that new funding arrangements would dissuade school 6th forms from trying to retain students and encouraging them to do A levels, when they might benefit more from a vocational or technical pathway elsewhere. 

According to official figures, nearly a third of A level students drop out before completing their studies, at a cost of £300 million to the national purse. At the same time, schools are reducing their vocational and skills-based provision to accommodate the EBacc, despite the fact that one in five companies report skills gaps and half of workplaces claim that technical and professional shortcomings affect their business. 

Nearly half – 47 per cent – of people in Britain believe there is too much focus on academic and not enough on job-related learning.

As such, the report calls on the DfE to increase the number of non-GCSE subjects that are allowed to count in headline accountability measures for schools at key stage 4.

And while the study concedes that the UK cannot necessarily take on the successful models from abroad, we could adopt some attitudes and practices, including better levels of employer involvement, more flexible progression routes (including back into academic pathways for those who want that), and regulatory support to provide students with “clear alternatives and effective choice”.

The report acknowledges the “many instances of excellent technical-vocational education in further education colleges”, but states that they are prevented from competing effectively with academic providers.

It adds: “The system of schools and colleges is dysfunctional in a way that does not serve the best interests of learners. 

“Providers appeal to learners on the basis of quality and of the distinctive offers they make, and by so doing can serve the educational needs of all students. This can only happen where free and fair markets operate. Reforms are needed to secure such fairness, to allow providers to compete effectively, and to provide learners with the information they need to make the choices that are right for them.”

Dr Owen Corrigan, research fellow in education at the Policy Exchange and the report’s co-author, said: “(The report) will add to the increasing focus now taking place on the future of vocational and technical learning. There is a real debate now taking place and people out there are considering what the real value is of education, and perhaps questioning the idea of whether going to university is the best path.” 

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information
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