The five steps to vocational success


Caroline Gallagher discusses the five key elements to delivering a successful programme of vocational education.


As youth unemployment continues to rise, vocational training forms a key part of government strategy to tackle this issue. Vocational qualifications when delivered within schools can offer a way for learners to develop work-ready, practical skills, renew self-confidence as their achievements grow, enhance their CV, and engage in a form of learning that interests them. But when it comes to delivering vocational qualifications effectively, what do schools need to bear in mind?

The right qualification

Choose the qualification which is the right fit for the students – a simple but crucial first step.

It is important to provide potential candidates with an initial assessment to confirm the appropriate level of activity and to help you choose the qualification which best fits their needs.

By fitting the learning programme to the cohort of students rather than the other way around, you are really able to nurture their strengths and help them to leave school armed with the skills they need to progress. 

For every potential doctor, there is a budding artist, or care worker, music technician, travel operator or retailer who would benefit from an element of vocational training to prepare them for the career ahead of them. 

Vocational education is also useful to those who are naturally academically inclined, giving them the employability skills to help them progress. In education, one size definitely does not fit all.

As you will no doubt be aware, from this term many vocational qualifications cease to hold GCSE equivalency as a result of changes brought in by the Department for Education (DfE). However, this does not mean that you are compelled to stop delivering vocational qualifications. There is a number of engaging alternative qualifications available which fit the new requirements, such as the NCFE V Certs.

What’s more, the DfE recommends that “in all cases schools should act as they judge to be in the best interests of their students, regardless of whether a particular qualification or course will be recognised for the purposes of performance tables”.

In fact, by delivering additional short vocational qualifications to your students and motivating them with extra achievement, you could be adding an extra layer of quality to a student’s all-round education and helping towards the achievement of a positive Ofsted report.

The core curriculum

It is important to weave vocational delivery into the core curriculum. Vocational education and academia need not work in conflict with each other – in fact they can be mutually compatible. 

Vocational qualifications can give real-world context to core curriculum subjects – for example personal money management can work alongside maths to demonstrate the importance of numeracy skills in action. 

Qualifications such as effective thinking skills, enterprise, learning to learn and employability skills develop a range of transferable skills such as team-working, problem-solving and confidence-building which students can then apply to their wider learning programmes at school.

Abbey School in Kent has been delivering NCFE’s Equality and Diversity qualification as part of its citizenship and RE statutory curriculum for all year 11 students. 

Religion and citizenship subject leader, Steven Cooper, said: “I have had students campaigning for kicking out racism in sport, which has led to our PE department formalising a code of conduct for all students involved in representing the school in sports. 

“This is a major achievement for the students. They could see that the Equality and Diversity course is not stale, old or irrelevant, but actually a real part of their own lives.”

“Because of the student-centred nature of the course, they have felt valued as individuals; happy that they are able to achieve something for themselves, rather than just for school statistics. The qualification also inspired some to go on to study sociology at A level.”

It’s all in the delivery

Differentiation is key – make sure you are able to recognise vulnerable learners by working with your school data manager. You can then tailor your teaching, learning and guidance accordingly. 

Build tutorial-style sessions around the assessment tasks, spend time with individual learners ensuring that they understand the targets and requirements, including those for higher grade achievement. 

It is positive to develop a “coaching” style of support – ask open-ended questions about the work, get the learners to explore possibilities, identify actions and analyse outcomes. An integral part of delivering vocational education is encouraging your learners towards reaching independence. With this in mind, project-based work can be a very successful method for engaging learners. 

The great thing about vocational qualifications is that you have the freedom and flexibility to deliver the qualification as you see fit using your teaching expertise. Through this, you can really capture the students’ imaginations. 

Back at Abbey School, for example, delivery of the Equality and Diversity course is broken down into 24 digestible PowerPoint-based lessons, each of which encourages students to think about a small bite-sized chunk of the qualification. 

Wherever possible, tutors looked to adopt interactive and innovative methods of delivery in efforts to stimulate debate and further thinking among students. Discussions often focused on current topics within national and local media, allowing students to see the real application of the ideas through their local community.

Engaging with the local community has been a successful method of delivery for many schools running vocational qualifications. St George’s School in Newport has been innovatively delivering a Level 2 Award in creative craft to students with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

The students completed two stand-out projects throughout the year and also produced artwork for exhibition and sale at the local hospital. By the end of the course, the learners had not only developed their creative talents but also their business acumen and enterprise skills. 

Plan to perfection

As professional planners, it might seem that this piece of advice would go without saying! However, it is so important to get approved with an awarding organisation. Submitting your approval forms in advance ensures that you can register candidates in plenty of time and it means the appointed external moderator for the vocational qualification has the opportunity to provide support to your school as required. Also, you will need to make sure that an internal moderator is allocated to the vocational programme as soon as possible.

Write an assessment plan (scheme of work/project/assignment) in advance of the programme which clearly identifies activity, evidence to be produced, associated learning outcome(s), and assessment points (dates). 

Your awarding organisation should be able to offer resources to help with this (for example, NCFE has internal assessment briefs on its website for helping to plan lessons for the V Certs).

You will also need to write an internal moderation plan ahead of delivery which clearly identifies the assessor(s), unit(s) and candidates in the proposed sample. This will be linked to the assessment plan so that the internal moderator can sample assessment decisions after they have taken place.

Feedback, feedback, feedback! 

Make sure that assessment decisions are clearly recorded and feedback is provided to candidates. It is very important to reference work correctly to the assessment criteria to make it clear which piece of work is attributable to which criteria. This helps assessment decisions and with external moderation. It also promotes organisational skills in a tidy and well-structured portfolio. 

Assessors also need to receive feedback on their practice and the quality of their assessment decisions. Make sure you take the advice from your external moderation report on board – it is there to help you and will inform and confirm good practice in your school. The external moderator should discuss the visit and any recommendations and action points before leaving. 

  • Caroline Gallagher is 14 to 16 qualifications officer at NCFE.

Further information
NCFE is a national awarding organisation and educational charity which offers a range of general and vocational qualifications. Visit


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