Vocational education will see a rapid decline in take-up because courses no longer count towards school performance league tables, according to a report.
The study, by the IPPR, found that government plans to reform accountability, which will see most vocational qualifications excluded, will narrow the options available to up to 70 per cent of the 14 to 16 age group. In turn, this will disadvantage the UK when it comes to competing globally.
The report found that vocational education enjoys a much higher status in many other countries, proving popular with young people and offering pathways into higher education.
It suggested that one way to strengthen skills-based learning in the UK was to hold schools to account for their provision of vocational courses, and increasing the expanding 14 to 19 programmes of study.
The report, Vocational Education in English schools: Protecting options for pre-16 pupils, said: “The challenge for supporters of vocational education is not simply to deal with the effects of the league table changes, it is to reassess how vocational education can be made more resilient to changes in the school accountability framework altogether.”
The majority of pupils aged 14 to 16 currently take at least one vocational course, and there will be up to 800,000 students taking some form of skills-based qualification at any time.
Last year, fewer than one million qualifications were awarded at key stage 4, with 85 per cent of these at Level 2.
However, the availability of these courses was not as widespread as in other economic competitor countries. Significantly, those with a greater proportion of students in vocational education at secondary level tended to have lower youth unemployment.
In the Netherlands, for example, vocational education was part of the mainstream system and pupils are able to do pathways all the way up to 18 that equip them with skills in key areas such as care, engineering, business and agriculture.
Youth employment in the Netherlands stands at 6.6 per cent, compared with 18.9 per cent in the UK.
The report said the focus in school league tables on the five or more A* to C grades measure had damaged vocational education and been too influential in determining what is taught in schools.
It concluded: “England needs a high-quality vocational education system that is resilient in the face of frequent changes in the school accountability framework.
“However, we also need to reform this school accountability system because it inhibits the development of high-quality vocational provision and, by extension, the development of a better-skilled, more productive workforce.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The government should stop restricting the range of vocational qualifications in performance tables and develop with teachers, employers and awarding bodies a strong system of vocational education that gives young people the opportunity to develop practical skills in real-life contexts.”
She added: “Society as a whole must recognise that educationally and economically positive returns can be gained from the majority of vocational qualifications for young people.”