Vocational education: still the debate no one wants to have

By Sam Tomlin

Education is one of the most hotly debated topics in British politics. The Education Secretary Michael Gove is one of the highest profile government ministers and most people will be aware of debates around ‘academies’, ‘free schools’ and tuition fees even if they do not know the specific details. Of course this is understandable as education is vital for any society to function properly – everyone has been through it and almost everyone knows people still in it.Voc Ed

There is one area of education, however, which has consistently failed to generate any kind of sustained popular or mainstream political debate and that is vocational education.

As it says on the tin, it is essentially education which prepares people (of all ages, but traditionally younger people) for a vocation – something that they specialise in. The system, involving various types of college, university and apprenticeship courses, is not simple to understand, but still plays a vital role in educating millions of people today (in 2011 it was estimated there were around 1.8million 16-18 year olds studying for vocational qualifications).

It is not that vocational education is given no attention. Indeed, there have in fact been numerous government and policy reports in the last decade, the most famous perhaps being the Wolf Review of Vocational Education in 2011 where Prof Alison Wolf advocated many changes to the system regarding how it is funded, taught and promoted. Many of these changes have been or are being enacted by the government, but one would be hard pressed to say that the process has been as thoroughly scrutinised as, say, school reform. A brief look at the Guardian’s ‘Schools’ news page shows as many as five or six stories in a particular day. Their ‘Vocational Education’ page had two entries in the whole of February. I co-authored a report on vocational education last year with a think tank and the press team were astounded at the lack of interest commentators and journalists showed in even hearing about it.

I’d briefly suggest there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that Britain has stopped making things. Thatcher’s deindustrialisation in the 80’s reduced the number of blue-collar jobs to a much more white-collar (or ‘transferable skills’) jobs society. While countries like Germany kept or adapted much of their industry, we closed much of ours down – the manufacturing sector has shrunk by around two thirds in the past 30 years. So as a result, there was less need to train people to make things and have a ‘career for life’.

Secondly, vocational education has become much less respected as a route in British education. A brilliant phrase by Prof Wolf is illustrative here, when she suggested that vocational qualifications were ‘a great idea for other people’s children’. Hardly any of the political class really see the vocational route as something they would want for their kids, and as a result, it is understandable that it does not receive much mainstream political attention. New Labour’s emphasis on ensuring greater numbers of people went to university is another reason for vocational education’s relative un-desirability.

Voc Ed2

The academic path is more valued in the UK. Source: ‘Education to Employment, McKinsey, 2013’

The consequence of our political class not taking it seriously is that families and young people often do not either. In a McKinsey study (2013), 67% of surveyed people said they felt the ‘academic’ path was more valued by society than the ‘vocational’ path. The figure was 49% in Germany. The danger, of course with promoting vocational subjects as much as ‘academic’ ones, is that it tends to become a more class-based society with more privileged young people going down the academic path and less privileged down the vocational (certainly unless inequality is seriously addressed). But again, this whole topic appears to be something we have simply avoided talking about in previous years.

This creates serious issues. Firstly, despite our ‘transferable skills’ culture, many employers are finding it hard to find skilled workers. The CBI 2013 education and skills survey showed that nearly two in five (39%) employers requiring employees with STEM skills find it hard to recruit such staff. Paradoxically, youth unemployment is still stubbornly high at around 1million (14.4% are NEETs), in part because they do not have the skills to get a job or even know what to do: according to the McKinsey study, only 30% of British young people said they had sufficient knowledge when it came to choosing what to study, while understanding and perception (how many found it attractive) of different careers or professions was also low compared to most other countries.

This clearly goes beyond the provision of vocational education: macro-economic policy and the promotion of certain industries has a large part to do with it. We can promote manufacturing or engineering training as much as we want – if there are no manufacturing or engineering jobs, it is fairly pointless. I am not (and I stress) for one second suggesting it is an easy transition to make, but I wonder whether we should be talking more about trying to ‘make’ things again – regional banks lending money to local companies which promote vocations for young people? The beginnings of such ideas have been suggested by Lord Glasman and the Blue Labour movement, but clearly they need more development.

But it will also require a shift so that we think that good quality vocational education is just as important as academic to building a successful society. This government’s big push on apprenticeships should certainly be praised in this area, but as I mentioned earlier, it should come alongside trying to reduce inequality. The ideal scenario would be an education system which offered high class and desirable academic and vocational options for people from all backgrounds. We are a long way off, however, and worryingly we do not even seem to want to talk about why.

  1. Indeed the current government has dealt two body blows to progress with this issue, the first was the EBACC which over night prioritised a spurious view of valued subjects against others, the second was the overnight destruction of burgeoning pre 16 vocational courses when the government announced that they would no longer count as anything but single courses in spite of the considerable work done by industrial partners in developing them into high value courses. All this at a time when the chancellor was setting about re balancing the economy with that famous phrase about designed in Britain, made in Britain. A shame that he failed to note the connection between his intentions and those of the secretary of state for education. The damage caused to the curriculum as schools shifted focus to respond to the new success criteria announced in speeches by Mr Gove will take years to rectify. The sooner we start the better!

  2. John said:

    As a former beneficiary and worker within the FE sector, I think I could add something of value.
    I gained vocational qualifications in business studies and professional qualifications in purchasing management.
    I gained all these qualifications after having left school at 15 without any academic qualifications – many did in those days.
    The FE sector provided me with a second chance; initially, through day release, thanks to Selective Employment Tax, and later through affordable evening class education. Where are these now, today?
    Friends gained professional qualifications in art, music, accountancy, law, secretaryship, mechanical and electrical engineering, and a whole raft of other fields during the 1960s thanks to the availability of day release and evening classes.
    I decided to upgrade my skills in the 1980s by gaining a full-time first degree and latterly day release masters degree, as well as a teacher training qualification (Cert. Ed.) in further and higher education. My employer paid for a number of the costs associated with the courses or upgraded my pay when I completed the courses involved.
    These days, part-time courses at further education colleges cost an absolute fortune to undertake.
    If central government wants to see a better educated work force then they need to start subsidising further education.
    Until they do, UK employers will continue to struggle to find the kind of workforce they need in this country.
    It would be interesting to see a comparison between the state funding for FE in – say – Germany and the UK.

  3. Thanks John and Geraint for insightful comments.

    Geraint – I would certainly agree with your comment on EBACC – it would have been much worse if Gove had had his way and schools were only judged on subjects he deemed worthy enough. As I mentioned in the article, I agree with you that I think much of the debate comes down to re-balancing the economy – how we structure our economy has massive implications for what kind of education system we have.

    John – it’s fantastic to hear of your experience within the FE sector. I would also be interested to see comparison of funding between Germany & UK for voc ed., but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re lagging behind.

    Would be interested if anyone has any further comments about whether inequality matters regarding vocational education: if we push for equality in education, will there be a class divide of people doing more academic/vocational routes?


    • John Dowdle said:

      It may be that we have all grown to rely too heavily on central government to sort out all our problems.
      If you think about activities in the past such as Lunar Societies and Mechanics’ Institutes, these were all initiatives which came from individuals – not governments. Perhaps if a Further Education Society could be established, this might work?
      I know there is a Workers Educational Association but I have not heard of them doing anything for years and when I have heard of them, they seem to be focused more on older or retired people than young people.
      Young people might welcome interest from older people in assisting them to gain the knowledge and understanding they require to function effectively in today’s world. Older people can teach younger people little about modern technology – except, perhaps, how to use it safely – but we can provide them with life skills education, such as how to use finance wisely and effectively. Young people might just welcome this interest in their welfare and sharing of relevant experiences.
      It would probably need local groups to start this initiative off, followed by regional and latterly national groups but I do feel that what is needed – really needed – right now is a principally voluntary approach. I would be happy to participate in such an activity. After all, that is why I became an educationalist – to help young people realise their full potential in life.

  4. John, your idea about the prevalence of private associations to promote further study is appealing. So many publications and institutes emerged in the 19th century, (perhaps that argument might appeal to Michael Gove, he seems to like everything else about the period).
    These already exist in the form of on line communities and hack spaces, not to mention the FabLAb community started by MIT and now international. We are fortunate to have one of these in our local university and at least one hack space in a nearby town where anyone can go and learn how to build their own pc, fix things and engage with all sorts of technology. Perhaps these are a way forward?

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