Vocational education should take its place alongside more academic education streams
From the praise, complaints (and often, confusion) directed at the apprenticeship levy to the recent discussion about a new technical equivalent to A levels (the aptly named ‘T levels’), vocational education has recently experienced something of a popularity boost. This is welcome: fewer than half of 18-year-olds progress directly from school to university and yet most post-16 education headlines centre on issues like tuition fees, rather than options for the majority of today’s young.
But getting vocational education ‘right’ depends on more than headlines. We must address the question of how to provide someone with the skills for a specific occupation while also imbuing them with the competencies to adapt if and when those occupational requirements change. It also requires us to address immediate challenges that afflict the vocational education system: clarity, quality and funding.
First, clarity: while university-bound students have a clear pathway from A levels to higher education, young people outside that group face complex and seemingly unnavigable choices, without a universal course comparison mechanism. Secondly, although defining ‘quality’ is tricky, there is evidence to suggest improvement is needed: last year Ofsted rated more than half of apprenticeship training providers as either poor or requiring improvement.
Finally, funding: spending on (16-18) further education has fallen faster than any other stage of education since 2010, with per-student spending nearly £900 lower today than in 2011/12. These cuts need to be reversed.
Getting vocational education ‘right’ won’t be easy but addressing these challenges would be a good first step.
Whilst more vocational and technical skills are needed for the UK skills market, we should not ignore the fact that many students use vocational qualifications as a route into higher education.
Vocational education is an important vehicle for social mobility and should remain so after the overhaul of technical education. Our recent research highlighted the discrimination and difficulties that vocational students can face when trying to access and succeed at university, at present it is unclear how the forthcoming T levels will be interpreted by universities. We do not know whether they will have UCAS points attached, how easily students will be able to switch between the technical and academic options or whether parity of esteem will ever be realised. The Department for Education must prioritise the bridging provision if they want to ensure that T levels do not stop young adults being able to access the first-class university education that this country has to offer.
The current vocational and technical education system is complex and often looked down upon by parents and employers. The introduction of T levels should simplify this complex system but ensuring that employers value the training and parents are confident that the final qualification awarded will allow their child to succeed should be a major priority for those in charge of implementing T levels.
T-Levels will only be a success if they are seen as being a credible and high quality vocational route, which are likely to last and hold value in the labour market.
But there are some real, practical, concerns that the government needs to address.
T-Levels require a large component of work experience, which seems to make sense. But given the currently low level of employer understanding of T-Levels, will employers be willing to offer the significant commitment of work placement hours necessary? And how much of this will be quality training?
Is it sensible for the government to restrict each T-Level to one supplier? This can reduce innovation, increase delivery risk, and gradually lead to dependency on the one supplier who wins the first contract, for which the bidding round opened earlier this week. We don’t do this for A Levels or GCSEs- why is a single examiner right for T-Levels but not for A-Levels?
More fundamentally, will T-Levels really usher in a “new world” in which technical and “academic” pathways have “equal status”? It certainly cannot be mandated by government but only earned over time, if high achieving students are persuaded to consider non “academic” routes.
A more sensible objective is that we have an education system designed to serve the range of interests, aptitudes, abilities and aspirations that we find among our young people – a system which supports and enables different, informed, choices to be made at the right time, and a system which enables progression on through different routes, rather than requiring young people to commit themselves irrevocably to one career route before they are ready.
Past governments have a patchy record of introducing new “technical/vocational” qualifications. Let’s hope fewer concerns are outstanding come the enrollment of the inaugural T-levels cohort, set for September 2020.