Over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of experimentation with England’s much maligned vocational education system. If these innovations are to be successful they need to involve employers to a much greater extent than is currently the case, writes Tristram Hooley.

The clue is in the name; ‘vocational education’ is only useful if it prepares you for work, and employers are best placed to define what individuals need.

A programme for the next government

As an employer-led membership body focused on bringing entry-level talent into the workforce, the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) has released a manifesto to help politicians to focus on the key issues for employers and young people.

We want the new government to:

  • place greater emphasis on employer and university collaboration in higher education;
  • maintain and streamline the apprenticeship system in consultation with employers;
  • facilitate better employment outcomes for disadvantaged students;
  • renew the Careers Strategy and extend careers hubs across the country;
  • invest in vocational education and engage employers in its design and implementation;
  • design migration policies that enable businesses to access high quality global talent.

At the heart of all of these policies is the argument that the workplace is a key destination for the skills and knowledge that are acquired in education. A successful transition to employment is critical to allow young people to access the good life and make a positive contribution to society and the economy. To make all of this happen there needs to be a clear dialogue between education and employment, and a commitment to directly involving employers.

Towards a new vocational education system

The developing system of apprenticeships and T-levels has much to recommend it, but it has been under-funded, inconsistently implemented and has often played second fiddle to the academic system.

We need supportive ‘careers hubs’ in each locality

We need to place career guidance at the heart of the new vocational education system to ensure that young people have the information they need about all possibilities. The new government needs to commit to implementing good career guidance (as defined by the Gatsby Benchmarks) in schools and colleges. Resources need to be put in place to support the appointment of a careers leader in each school and to set up supportive ‘careers hubs’ in each locality.

We are optimistic about the opportunity T-levels offer to reboot vocational education and would like to see all parties committing to the idea that they will be here for at least a generation. The new government will then need to invest in building the system and in a substantial information and engagement campaign aimed at young people, their parents and employers. It will also have to tackle the concerns employers have by bringing them into the governance of the new qualifications and providing support and incentives for the substantial new work-experience commitments.

Finally, it is important that a new government offers continuity on the apprenticeships system. Employers have been on the sharp end of all of the changes, including cost and bureaucracy increases, and have now started to get the system working.

A new government needs to put employers at the centre of the apprenticeship system, allowing them to increase its flexibility. It should also commit to the principle that the apprenticeship levy should not be a payroll tax, that the funding system should be more transparent and that good employers should get out more than they put in.

The time is ripe for England to build a better vocational education system. We have many of the pieces already, but it is up to the next government to put them together in a lasting way. Employers stand ready to help with this for any government that is serious about making it work.