The new aims and role of the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) has become clearer since a consultation event this month, as Andrew Morris explains.

The new Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER), funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) was the focus of attention at a major gathering of college leaders and researchers this month.

Directed by Professor Sandra McNally of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, the new research centre will be developing much needed evidence aimed at improving the delivery of vocational programmes and involvement of employers. A clearer picture of routes to employment and better information about their value should be the result.

The programme for the new centre was set out and discussed at the latest workshop of the Learning & Skills Research Network.

In an encouraging sign for the sector, feedback from consultation events such as this will help shape the centre’s programme. Close links with the Education and Training Foundation are also planned as it develops the ideas for a vocational education and training (Vet) centre set out by the McLoughlin Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (Cavtl).

With its wider brief as a hub for practice development and innovation the Cavtl Centre will complement the data-driven research of the BIS centre. By connecting quantitative research with the development of practice the prospects of an evidence-based vocational education system look a little brighter today.

The prospects of an evidence-based vocational education system look a little brighter today

A top priority for the LSE-based research centre is to develop a robust descriptive overview of the system. The actual experience of young people and the value of the various routes they take needs to be analysed; it’s good to hear the CVER will tackle this.

By simply describing the Vet system systematically an important first step will have been taken. The absence of common language and concepts between employers, awarding bodies, colleges and government — let alone students and parents — has been a real block on progress, a point emphasised strongly at the LSRN workshop.

The bread and butter work of the new centre will be working with large datasets, run as it is by a consortium of economists from four institutions, led by the LSE. By linking data together it will explore the value of vocational options, participation decisions, the quantity and quality of provision and influences on employer demand.

At last, important data about student journeys, qualifications, progression and employment, currently sitting in separate silos will begin to be connected up, throwing light on what is actually happening. But as researchers at the workshop pointed out: getting hold of it, cleaning it up and matching up records will be no easy task.

The economic value of vocational learning is not all that motivates students, as college leader were quick to point out at the workshop. Young people can be passionate as well as judicious in the way they make their choices.

Qualifications alone fail to capture all aspects of success in learning. Even data about levels can be misleading where different types of learner are lumped together inappropriately. At levels one and two for example some may be catching up after a poor time at school, others starting afresh after graduation.

Research centres serving the sector have come and gone — remember the Learning & Skills Research Centre and the Wider Benefits of Learning? What is vital is that this one not only crunches the numbers but also engages with the practice, policy and business communities to ensure that its work gets multiplied by others and its findings are taken on board.

It is refreshing to see the CVER addressing this at the outset. It will be producing documentation for the large datasets for the wider research community to use.

By engaging practitioners in developing the agenda and interpreting results it is more likely that people will sit up and take notice of the findings further down the line. And that’s what counts in the end if research is to make a difference.