Reforming vocational education: plugging the skills gap

Reforming vocational education: plugging the skills gap

A young male and female crowd around a screen
With nearly one million 16-24 year olds unemployed in the UK it is easy to see that there is some way to go to ensure that young people leaving the education system are appropriately prepared for the world of work. The following article by our Group Chief Executive, Simon Lebus, features in the February edition of Total Politics:

You may have quietly enjoyed the recent, and much publicised, public spat between City A.M. journalist Allister Heath and the French Embassy in London.

In case you missed it, while professing a great love of France and all things French, Allister helpfully pointed out the shortcomings of the French economy and economic model. It didn’t go down well. 

But a wry enjoyment of watching our Gallic chums get into a public tizzy should not blind us to the shortcomings in our own economy. 

With nearly one million 16-24 year olds unemployed in the UK it is easy to see that there is some way to go to ensure that young people leaving the education system are appropriately prepared for the world of work.  It represents a sad and deeply troubling waste of potential.

Various reports, from the CBI’s ‘First Steps: A new approach for our schools’ to the McKinsey Institute’s recent report ‘Education to employment’, highlight that young people’s skills and the expectations of employers do not match.

Faced with such a stark reality the temptation becomes threefold: shout for ministers to act; identify gaps in the jobs market and create specific courses or qualifications to meet specific skills needs, and; tidy up the system to funnel learners directly into specific jobs. This thinking also assumes that whatever currently exists must not be working and must therefore be scrapped. 

But, in reforming 16-19 vocational qualifications I would argue it is essential to retain the flexibility of study programmes, rather than to restrict learner choice and progression through the enforcement of some artificial categorisation of qualifications. Some learners will know at 16 exactly what they want to do; for them rigorous traineeships and apprenticeships are vital. But this isn’t so for every learner. For those others we need to provide a flavour of a sector around which are imparted broad skill sets and knowledge which allow them to progress in any direction.  We must also enthuse youngsters about both education and the world of work. 

Whilst it is true that good study programmes are dependent upon high quality qualifications with clear focus and purpose, it must remain the responsibility of those who understand assessment (awarding organisations), those who understand divergent learner needs (schools, colleges and training providers) as well as those who understand the needs of the workplace (employers) to determine what impact these factors have on the content of qualifications. 

And there is more happening organically than you might think. For example, my own exam board, OCR, in line with the recommendations made by the CBI, has pioneered qualifications in areas such as Employability and Entrepreneurialism, as well as a range of post-16 maths and English options, to help and motivate different types of student. Organisations such as Ahead Partnership, a social enterprise based in Leeds, recently won Lottery funding for a flagship programme which promotes a wide range of entrepreneurial activities between schools and businesses.  In January, in the presence of Skills Minister Matthew Hancock, Lord Young of Graffham and over 40 schools and colleges, we saw the launch of ‘The Entrepreneurial Education Group (  The brainchild of YES Education and ourselves, this new network is designed to help teachers and lecturers develop the skills and the mindsets that make young people more employable as well as nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.

There are even initiatives between exam boards –like my own- and Premier League football clubs, as well as with the Premier League Enterprise Academy, designed to increase the opportunities for young people to demonstrate and develop their business skills and entrepreneurial spirit.

Core skills, like English and maths, and positive work and attitudinal habits will come through the alignment of qualifications providers and business with the interests of learners and not through the arbitrary creation of yet more bureaucratic hurdles or qualifications – we tried that with the Diploma and it didn’t work.


Simon Lebus is the Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, a not-for-profit Department of the University of Cambridge, which operates and manages the University’s three examination boards.

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