Stamping out VQ stigma


Lord Baker on why we must stop telling our students that A levels and university are the only route to success.

In today’s society, UK school students face a wall of daunting prospects when deciding on their steps towards a future career. Headlines of youth unemployment arrive in tandem with news of soaring university fees, broadcasting a bleak reality for career hopefuls.

It is just as worrying that advice on alternative career and study options is scarce. School is a main, and in some cases the only, source of careers advice for young people. 

Yet the prevailing sense among A level students is that schools convey one strong message – university is the only route to success.

Research commissioned by the Edge Foundation for VQ Day 2012 polled 500 A level students across the country. The vast majority (92 per cent) felt that their school wanted them to attend university.

Almost two in five (39 per cent) felt pressured by teachers to take the academic route, and more than half (52 per cent) were advised plainly that they would be more successful if they did.

While university routes undeniably lead many on to successful careers, recent figures released from the Office for National Statistics show that nearly a fifth of graduates are unemployed, and that in the last three months of 2011, one in three people who completed their degree in the last six years was working in a role that was suitable for a school leaver. 

It is fair to say that there is some disparity between these figures and the vision of success being pitched to some students.

Ironically, while those remaining unemployed struggle to find work, companies across the globe complain that they have trouble filling roles. 

According to the World Economic Forum, there are 10 million manufacturing jobs available worldwide, while figures from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills reveal that one in three vacancies for trades like electricians, plumbers and chefs are hard to fill.

What all of these industries lack and desperately need is a skilled workforce.

It is not a black and white case of solving both of these issues together, but the paradox speaks for itself: there is a job to do in bridging the gap between sectors which need skilled workers and students in search of worthwhile jobs. Only with appropriately skilled and trained people can we drive forward the UK economy, a sentiment which was recognised and echoed by business secretary Vince Cable at this year’s national VQ Day event.

He rightly highlighted the expansion of apprenticeships in the UK, which now cover more than 200 different occupations. Unfortunately the message is getting lost inside the school gates.

Indeed, the negative view of VQs actually begins here in many cases. One in five A level students in our survey were told by teachers that vocational qualifications were designed for less ambitious learners, and more than a quarter were told that vocational options are for people not as bright as them. Given the influence they have over young people, teachers’ views can have long-term effects – if they nudge young people down the wrong path, it could push them away from the job that is right for them.

We must tackle the problem from the root. As it stands, a third of A level students say vocational qualifications have never been presented to them as an option (32 per cent), and more than three quarters (76 per cent) claim to have received little or no information compared with detail on university courses.

Viewed this way, question marks hover over whether enough information on vocational options actually exists in schools. Without it, teachers are left to advise students based on their own experiences, which in most cases means A levels followed by university. 

Can teachers then be blamed? No. The key, surely, is to make sure teachers have full, up-to-date and accurate information about learning and careers – including vocational pathways. 

The recent introduction of statutory guidance on the provision of independent careers advice in schools is a welcome step forward. 

Dave Hughes, this year’s national VQ Learner of the Year, was aged 24 when he set up his own design company, after honing his skills through the completion of several vocational qualifications in graphics, art and design. 

Dave now employs skilled peers who have excelled in the same field. Like other winners of VQ Day 2012 Learner of the Year Awards, he is a shining example of the high quality vocational achievements that can be found in literally every part of the country. We need to tell Dave’s story – and thousands more – so that future generations of young people know just how much can be achieved through vocational learning.

  • Lord Baker of Dorking is chairman of independent vocational education charity, the Edge Foundation. Visit

CAPTION: Performing arts students from Walsall College help to celebrate the annual VQ Day earlier this year. 


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