Three years ago this month, the Wolf Report on the future of vocational education for 14 to 19-year-olds was heralded as a vehicle for radical change in the FE sector, writes Freddie Whittaker.
Professor Alison Wolf’s 27 recommendations called for a huge shake-up in careers advice and qualifications, among other things, and her ideas were welcomed by the Department for Education (DfE) and sector leaders, who viewed it with promise.
But now, although the author herself seems relatively pleased with government progress in implementing her recommendations (see right), the response to progress from the FE sector has been mixed.
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “The Wolf report said that we should be encouraging more young people to take an apprenticeship and we agree with that approach.
“However the proposals to change the funding routes and to make employers make a compulsory contribution even for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds will create a barrier for entry for many young people.
“We should review the impact of these proposals on how it will affect the numbers of young people getting an apprenticeship opportunity.
“The key will be to ensure that the providers of vocational education and training have the flexibility to ensure that every young person gets the support that they need through the programme of their choice.”
Deborah Ribchester, 14 to 19 and curriculum senior policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said: “Probably the most significant change for colleges has been the move from funding for qualifications to funding per student for a coherent study programme based on a set of overarching principles.
“This has given colleges the flexibility to design study programmes in which both qualifications and non-qualification activities have equal value and programmes can be designed to meet the needs of students. This is proving to be beneficial.”
Sixth Form Colleges Association chief executive David Igoe said it would be “difficult to overestimate the impact of the Wolf recommendations on the DfE”.
He said: “Whether the legacy of the present administration will be the resounding success story often trumpeted by the right-leaning press and Mr Gove will take his place in history as a leading architect of reform is far too early to judge. If history approves then he will have a lot to thank Alison Wolf for.
“Alternatively we may be seeing a reform agenda that, as far as the 16 to 19 phase goes, precipitates a disaster for the country as we witness the unravelling of high quality, highly efficient provision (aka sixth form colleges) being sacrificed on the altar of fiscal rectitude.”
Dr Stephan Jungnitz, colleges specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, said his organisation had welcomed the report’s aim to reform vocational education, “especially as unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds was rising to new heights”, but said the devil was in the detail.
He said: “While many of the recommendations were welcome, the constant hacking away of resources has meant that we haven’t seen the improvement that was hoped for.
“The report recommended that the funding system should be simplified to free up resources for teaching and learning. Since the report came out, 16-19 funding has fallen by around 25 per cent in real terms. Colleges simply do not have the resources available, no matter how well intentioned the recommendation.”
Lynne Sedgmore, chief executive of the 157 Group, said that since the report, vocational education had enjoyed a “higher profile and a more adult debate about its future”.
But she added: “However, as is so often the case, much of the devil has been in the detail, and there are signs that the trust Professor Wolf wanted placed in the sector is not entirely there.
“At grass roots level, funding mechanisms remain complex, and there is still a degree of central prescription around issues such as work experience and maths and English qualifications which goes against the initial spirit of her recommendations.
“The Wolf report could have led to a broad review of the principles upon which we base our whole post-14 system of education. Instead, while we have seen many positive developments, the real impact has been more tinkering with system mechanics and a plethora of policy initiatives which do not always seem part of a coherent whole.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “The recommendations have underpinned our reforms of vocational and technical education to ensure it is once again being given the high status it deserves.
“We have scrapped low-quality vocational qualifications so that only the gold-standard courses proven to help young people get the skills employers are looking for remain. Our new tech levels, backed by leading employers, will place vocational education on a par with A-levels.”
Professor Wolf’s 10 key recommendations (as selected by her)
Study programmes for 16 to 18-year-olds in vocational programmes should be governed by a set of general principles, which, if met, allow institutions to offer any qualification from a recognised awarding body.
Students aged 16 to 19 pursuing full-time courses should not follow a programme which is entirely occupational or based solely on courses which directly reflect the content of National Occupational Standards. Their programmes should also include at least one qualification of substantial size in terms of teaching time.
Students under 19 who do not have GCSE A* to C in English and/or maths should be required to pursue a course which either leads directly to these qualifications or provides significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success.
Funding for full-time students aged 16 to 18 should be on a programme basis, with a given level of funding per student. The funding should follow the student.
Young people who do not use up their time-based entitlement to education by the time they are 19 should be entitled to a corresponding credit towards education at a later date.
The Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should review contract arrangements for apprenticeships, drawing on best practice internationally, with a view to increasing efficiency, controlling unit costs and driving out any frictional expenditure associated with middleman activities.
Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills should be recognised. This will enable schools to recruit qualified professionals to teach courses at school level, rather than bussing pupils to colleges, with clear efficiency gains.
The legal right of colleges to take students
until 16 should be made explicit. Colleges enrolling students in this age group should be required to offer them a full Key Stage four programme, either alone or in collaboration with schools.
The Department for Education should evaluate models for supplying genuine work experience to 16 to 18-year-olds who are enrolled as full-time students, not apprentices, and for reimbursing local employers in a flexible way, using core funds.
The legislation governing Ofqual should be examined and where necessary amended, in order to clarify the respective responsibilities of the regulator and the Secretary of State.
What the experts say
Recommendations 5 and 6
Five and six go together and define and mandate study programmes. This was about getting away from piling up qualifications – but also leaving it to the sector to implement, rather than getting bogged down in yet another attempt to create new centrally defined diplomas, baccalaureates, or whatever. I am delighted they did it, surprised we didn’t get another qualification-creating commission.
‘Heavy lifting’, say friends of mine who are principals. Yes, agreed — but no regrets. This is one of the two recommendations I thought most important. I am delighted they adopted it, and still believe that the GCSE is what the labour market recognizes, and it was time we joined the rest of the world in what we make compulsory.
Without this, programmes of study would be impossible, maths and English GCSE classes a nightmare, work experience would deteriorate into box-ticking ‘certification’ — the second of my ‘top two’ recommendations, and again, no regrets at all. The old system was bizarre and unique and should not be mourned.
This was not rejected but is not exactly going anywhere fast. I really worry about the renewed push to increase numbers going into higher education, which is not likely to help with this.
This was code for ‘the whole thing needs to be completely rethought and redesigned’. Hooray for Doug Richard.
I was surprised by how little opposition got mustered, and delighted by the speed with which this was implemented.
I thought this one might die but it didn’t. I am hoping that lots of flowers are blooming. This was a way to recreate some of the old junior technical schools without spending a fortune, but definitely not code for ‘everyone should do it’.
More heavy lifting, but again, I am delighted they did it, and if it can be done in some of our most deprived areas — which it is — then it can surely be done everywhere. I got more flack for the Key Stage four bit of this than for any other thing in the report, but haven’t changed my mind there either.
I’d state this differently now. Nothing has happened, and it is still a mess.
Alison Wolf is Professor of public sector management at King’s College London
Recommendations 5 and 6
A good step forward, putting responsibility for developing the detail of programmes where it belongs — at institutional level. It is a pity they felt the need to develop a centrally-planned traineeship initiative because study programmes can do everything a traineeship requires.
I suspect the labour market recognises GCSEs because they have been around for a long time, not because they are fit for purpose.
I am wholeheartedly with Alison Wolf on this one, though we should beware the counter attack being mounted by selective institutions who say they cannot afford to offer the IB or big programmes of five A-levels for the brightest students.
I think the move to cut funding for 18-year-olds suggests that we are actually moving in the wrong direction on this. At the moment we still have an entitlement for basic skills, but adult FE is under such pressure that even this faces threats.
The problem with apprenticeships is not the so-called ‘middlemen’ but the fact that government has been so desperate to increase numbers that it turned a blind eye to practices that risk bringing apprenticeships into disrepute. It is right to encourage greater employer ownership, but the Richard Review proposals simply place extra burdens on employers which most will not welcome.
A good recommendation and commendable response, now undermined sadly by the withdrawal of the requirement for FE teachers to be qualified. Relaxation of rules for school teachers in academies implies levelling down not levelling up — a backward step.
We ought to be making far more use of FE expertise to support vocational programmes for 14 to 16-year-olds rather than developing expensive new provision.
Dropping the Key Stage four requirement has attracted a lot of criticism but people need to recognise the brutal truth. If hardly anyone goes into a full-time job at 16 or 17 there is no need for work experience at 14 or 15. There is plenty of time for that later. The current proposals for apprenticeship reform almost seem designed to reinforce this picture.
Mick Fletcher is an FE consultant
Having chaired an excellently attended Association of Colleges conference recently, focused on the implementation of study skills, I am confident that this recommendation has gained traction across the sector. Practitioners are already gaining the confidence to once again ‘own’ the curriculum and ensure that it’s in the interests of students and indirectly employers, helping contribute to the jobs, opportunity and prosperity agenda.
I am confident that this is being realized and will help ensure personal growth and employability for students.
I am clear that this is the right thing to do, but the government should not come to think of the sector as a ‘sticking plaster’ to solve the deficiencies of pre-16 education. Future governments should provide additional resources.
Progress is being made in this area by the Education Funding Agency. However, a significant disappointment has been the government’s arbitrary and non-evidence based imposition of a cut in funding for 18-year-olds. This is iniquitous and the campaign to right it should continue.
It has been rethought, but I am very worried that the Doug Richard solutions are not right for either the sector, the majority of employers who are small and medium-sized enterprises or, ultimately, for current and future apprentices.
I agree with Alison’s points on this.
I am delighted that this has progressed and that four colleges have already enrolled this year. The feedback from Ofsted monitoring visits is also very encouraging. This could be the beginning of a historic shift in provision.
I agree with Alison’s points on this.
I do believe that this is happening.
Mike Hopkins, chief executive of the Middleborough/Gateshead College Confederation and chair of the Principals’ Professional Council
In November 2013, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a progress report on the implementation of Professor Wolf’s recommendations. Here is what it said about the key points selected by Professor Wolf
Recommendations 5, 6 and 9
The DfE said that 16 to 19 study programmes reflecting the recommendations were introduced in August last year for all post-16 students attending schools, colleges and work-based learning providers. From September the requirement that students who have not achieved a grade A* to C GCSE in English and maths continue to study those subjects will become a condition of student funding.
The national funding rate was set at £4,000 per student for 2013/14 in September last year. The Education Funding Agency (EFA) also published details on evidence and audit requirements.
In December 2011, the DfE released a report called New Challenges, New chances, Investing in a World Class Skills System, which committed the government to funding all adults aged 19 to gain English and maths qualifications to level two.
Last autumn, successful bids for the employer ownership of skills pilots were implemented. An impact evaluation will run until 2017.
In April 2012, regulations to allow QTLS holders who were members of the Institute for Learning to be recognised as qualified teachers in schools came into force.
Last year, Education Funding Agency funding guidance on full-time enrolment of 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges was published, and by September, five of the seven colleges which had intended to enroll students from the age group had done so.
From September 2012, the statutory duty for all schools to provide work-related learning at Key Stage four was removed. Last September, the requirement for all 16 to 19-year-olds to undertake work experience was included in study programme principles.
Following comments on a draft framework sent to Ofqual last year, a memorandum of understanding will be considered. The DfE claims no further legislation is needed.