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.
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.
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.