Vocational - how to build it better

07 May 2015

Genuine improvement in vocational education and training – both in the UK and internationally – can only be achieved by attending to the incentives and drivers operating in specific sectors, a seminar has concluded.

In a talk held by the Cambridge Assessment Network, Linda Clarke, Professor of European Industrial Relations at the Westminster Business School, spoke about her research of more than 30 years into vocational education in the construction industry.

An interested and engaged audience heard how the construction sector is very different in Germany compared to the UK. The German model is grounded in its school system, related to the curriculum and with VET acting as a continuation of general education. By contrast, the English model is grounded in the labour market, based on employer demand, and involves minimal educational content. Linda summed the situation up by saying that bricklaying is a trade in England; while in most other European countries it is an occupation.

She said the construction industry had to change to respond to the challenge of climate change. She said it needed a new approach to achieve ‘near zero emissions’ buildings, breaking down on-site trade divisions and adopting integrated teamworking instead.

She ended her talk by calling for a “new, comprehensive, regulated, inclusive and statutory VET system based on social partnership and geared to developing individual capacity over working life – with the ability to adapt to change and to innovate”.

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s Director of Assessment Research and Development, had opened the seminar by saying that three decades of governments in the UK had tried to improve VET using the lever of qualification policy, but failed. He said a recent report on apprenticeships and traineeships by the House of Commons Select Committee was encouraging but policymakers in the UK needed to understand that changing qualifications was not the best way to improve VET.

“The health service is not like the construction industry; the construction industry is not like the aircraft engineering industry - but these over-arching qualification-based policies are an attempt to change the entire system and not to engage with the reality of the detail in individual sectors,” he said. “Only by attending to the details – of incentives and drivers, patterns of labour, pay rates, market conditions and so on – will we genuinely get an improvement in the quality and numbers in VET.” A lively question and answer session then followed in which the audience was able to debate Linda’s ideas more fully. 

Charlotte Bosworth, Director of Skills and Employment at UK exam board Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR) said the talk raised interesting questions. "It really focused on some of the fundamental issues that we still need to address when considering the direction of vocational education," she said. 

"Linda's inputs were interesting, thought provoking and I think left a number of attendees with plenty to consider around the importance of VET". 

You can watch a video of Linda’s full presentation below.

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