Latest boost to vocational education: What are the priorities?

22 October 2014

The newly ennobled Professor Alison Wolf has been named to head up the panel reviewing bids for the proposed million pound Centre for Vocational Education Policy. I am sure that the new institute will have plenty of issues to get its teeth into. Many of them relate to issues raised in her influential Review of Vocational Education, published back in March 2011 and bulging with comprehensive research findings, opinions and 27 chunky recommendations.

For example, the Wolf Review paid a lot of attention to the nature and quality of apprenticeships. It praised the Government for making apprenticeships a priority, stressing their potential for offering opportunities for social mobility. Much was said, as well, about the need to develop apprenticeships with more flexible employer-led design, more academic content and less dependence on narrow national occupational standards – and sure enough, we now have revised apprenticeship frameworks which try to take some of this on board. And no-one can deny that apprenticeships continue to be given priority and that their profile as a viable alternative to an academic route has grown.

...demand from candidates has outstripped the supply of apprenticeship vacancies by as much as 11 to one."

The new Centre could find some rich material by looking into the success or otherwise of policies relating to apprenticeships. And in so doing it could consider the case made by the British Chambers of Commerce 2014/15 Business Manifesto in calling for an increase in the take up of apprenticeships by extending the £1,500 apprenticeship grant for employers beyond 2016 (now that demand from candidates has outstripped the supply of apprenticeship vacancies by as much as 11 to one). The Centre could also investigate the impact of apprenticeships on social mobility, especially in the light of the key ‘alert’, described in the OCR-sponsored Skills Commission’s inquiry into ‘Skills & the Changing Structures of Work’, which warns of the risks of declining social mobility owing to a reduction in the alignment of skills provision to work.

Wolf was highly critical of many lower level vocational qualifications; she portrayed a system in which 30 to 40 thousand 16-19 year olds were being offered programmes every year that led to qualifications that were of little or no economic benefit to anybody. Since then, the Department for Education (DfE) has done much to use accountability measures and funding models to drive the nature and availability of qualifications. This can be seen in the recently published DfE Technical Guidance for 2016 Headline Accountability Measures which rightly seeks to reward colleges and providers who provide programmes which create the best possible chances to progress to a good destination. The guidance is certainly for the technically minded with its references to ‘experimental statistics’, ‘shared outputs’ and ‘non-final methodologies’.

It would be interesting for the new Centre for Vocational Education Policy to monitor the impact of these measures. Some of the risks, and a solution, were described powerfully in the Wolf Review: “…The past two decades have been a period of micro-management, driven by funding mechanisms and performance management systems which all too often create perverse incentives for schools, colleges, training providers and awarding bodies, and by detailed regulation of qualifications. All of these need simplification”.

88 percent of school leavers are unprepared for the world of work and 52 percent of employers don’t offer any kind of work experience"

One of the paradoxes of Professor Wolf’s review was its position on work experience. She saw meaningful work experience as vital preparation for the world of work. But she wanted it to be high quality, relevant and saw it as most important as part of vocational programmes post 16. It was her recommendation that paved the way for changes in legislation that meant that work placements at Key Stage 4 were no longer a statutory requirement. There are suggestions that work experience of some form post 16 is about to undergo a step change with new requirements for employer engagement pressing down on colleges and providers. However, there is anecdotal evidence that the removal of work experience as a mandatory offer in schools has led to a reduction in employer engagement in some schools. This certainly seems to be evidenced by the British Chamber of Commerce employer survey where employers claim that 88 percent of school leavers are unprepared for the world of work and that 52 percent of employers don’t offer any kind of work experience (suggesting fault on both sides). This could be something else for the new Policy Centre to look into.

Finally, Wolf had a great deal to say on the role of GCSE Maths and English. She rightly identified in her report that people who possess Maths and English GCSE do rather better in life than those who don’t. This led to the policy now in place that all young people who failed to achieve Maths and English GCSE at KS4 should be required to continue to study it post 16. This policy has of course been finessed. Those who are not immediately equipped to achieve GCSE can take stepping stone qualifications on the journey towards GCSEs. This is a common sense approach and recognises the importance of Functional Skills and other skills qualifications which allow people to learn Maths and English in the context of real life and work, getting them away from the cycle of failure so often associated with endless re-sits. We should congratulate Nick Boles for seeing the importance of Functional Skills as he sets out in his recent letter to Ofqual. Perhaps, in time, the Centre for Vocational Education Policy will be able to prove the wisdom of his approach.

Paul Steer
Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR)