As the government seeks to define vocational qualifications and strip out those that are not ‘rigorous’, Lynne Sedgmore reflects on the purpose of vocational education and training

We sometimes get so caught up in the detail of the latest initiative that obvious contradictions fail to leap out at us.

The publication of It’s About Work…, the promised Tech Bacc and the proposal of a VET centre have put vocational education, pedagogy and training at the centre in debates about education policy. About time. But we have a mountain to climb if we are to overcome the innate preference of many families for their children to pursue academic routes to success.

The current consultation on vocational qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds aims to establish standards for level three qualifications as an assurance of their quality and that they be something to aspire to. This is a worthy aim indeed.

A key plank of the consultation is the proposal to define qualifications more strictly as either ‘occupational’ or ‘applied general’, depending upon whether they are designed to prepare young people for a specific career or to teach broader skills that may be applied in a number of careers..

As part of the drive towards increased public information for potential learners, these categories would then be used to report on the performance of particular programmes in particular institutions. So far, so good, you might think – vocational qualifications will be presented on a level playing field with their academic counterparts. And both categories undoubtedly have a good proportion of The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning’s ‘line of sight to work’.

But why is there a need to categorise? The term ‘applied general’ doesn’t seem very sexy. Why would a young person want to do something which, from its label alone, would not seem to be specific at all? It feels like something of a value-laden term, which could make well-respected qualifications like the BTec in business instantly less appealing.

Should we be advocating that those on a vocational pathway study something that is ‘narrow’?”

Coupled with the Skills Minister’s view that “far too little genuinely occupational education takes place among 16 to18-year-olds”, we might reasonably wonder whether ‘applied general’ qualifications are intended to be less valuable. Perhaps it is right for young people entering vocational education and training to specialise in preparing for a specific occupation.

But, for adults, we read in the skills strategy published last month that many ‘occupational’ qualifications are “too narrow”. Surely this is the same suite of qualifications being studied by younger learners? Should we be advocating that those on a vocational pathway study something that is “narrow”?

And what constitutes success for someone on an ‘occupational’ course? A job in what they have trained for, many would say. But what of the young person who studies hairdressing and decides instead to apply their learned business skills to set up their own customer care consultancy? Or the engineer who is taken with the mathematical elements of the work and decides to become an accountant after pursuing a degree in maths?

Are these students ‘failures’, or simply a testament to the amazing things that can happen when a course contains the broadest mix of practical and employability skills?

Attention to developing a broad range of skills for work and employment is what those in the FE sector are renowned for. We know that success is as much about attitude and skills as it is about occupationally specific knowledge. I cannot help but wonder how being any more specific than that will be of help to anyone.

Lynn Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group