The Department for Education’s new panel tasked with looking at a new framework for technical and professional education needs to look at domestic evidence of past attempts to revise the system, says Charlotte Bosworth.

Shortly after the election in 2010, the government asked Professor Alison Wolf to lead a review of vocational education for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The 27 recommendations that came from that report led to the review and revision of funding and accountability regimes and changes to qualifications.

There has been so much change that employers would need to work hard to keep up

Fast forward to 2015 and following another election a further review of vocational qualifications is announced.

Any external commentator would probably assume that the previous review didn’t work. When the reality is the reform agenda hasn’t matured enough for us to know its relative success or failure.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) as a country we have a number of attempts to revise vocational education to look back on.

There is something to be said for relative stability in educational systems, the often-cited German vocational system has in fact changed very little over the course of the last two (or even more) decades, whereas our own system has been subject to much reform.

One of the difficulties of explaining the education system to anyone who is not immersed in it is that there has been so much change that employers would need to work hard to keep up.

This has been exacerbated by a lack of consistency around names and types of qualifications so employers do not know what the right choice is for them.

In ‘Avoiding the same old mistakes’ the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warned about the tendency for reforms in England to focus ‘excessively’ on qualifications rather than on the wider system. This is something the review panel needs to consider.

In the recent past, attempts to develop a new system of composite qualifications that blended general and vocational education, the 14-19 diploma, have left scars on those of us who were involved.

Not just in terms of the loss of time and significant investment that was wasted on developments for programmes that were only available for a limited amount of time, but also the wasted enthusiasm of employers and the lost promise to the young people. But I could cite other examples, NVQs, GNVQs — the list goes on.

I have before called for a more comprehensive review than this one. I think we need a once-in-a-lifetime review of the whole education and skills system and clarity on which institutions deliver what.

A review of only one side risks creating imbalance in the system and perpetuating the disparity of understanding of the different pathways that already exist.

While there is much to learn from international comparisons, we must look at the history and context for those reforms and successes, rather than a snapshot of how they are currently constructed. At a seminar run by the Cambridge Assessment Network recently, Tim Oates, group research director of Cambridge Assessment, and Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren, founding director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, spoke about the research they did into the sudden rise of Finland to the top of PISA tables.

Their analysis into the time-lag effect and taking a historical view of Finland’s education system and cultural development shows the potential pit-falls of ‘education tourism’.

When Finland’s success in the PISA results came about, visitors came to see what about the system in Finland was producing such exceptional results. But the immediate perception was to forget the time-lag effect.

The esteemed panel completing this review will no doubt look for evidence and analysis in order to make their recommendations.

We hope that they look broadly, deeply and with historical and cultural sensitivity to ensure that, even though this review is not as broad in scope as we have called for, it does become an once-in-a-lifetime review we don’t have to revisit after another election.