The prominence of technical and vocational education in this electoral campaign is significant for the sector, writes Andrew Morris, but if reform isn’t informed by research, history will repeat itself

“You’re joking! Not another one?” Not the words of Brenda from Bristol, but those of Professor Gareth Parry as he opened the recent Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN) workshop on technical and professional education. To see political parties vying for FE policy primacy added a sense of urgency to proceedings.

But a few weeks on, and only a week away from the election, technical and vocational education is out of the news cycle again despite its central importance to delivering the country’s future prosperity. The incoming government will have carte blanche to deliver its manifesto.

Unfortunately, as Geoff Stanton, Honorary Fellow at UCL Institute of Education, pointed out during the workshop, the track record is not promising. In fact, a recurring motif throughout the day was “echoes of the past”, with many participants underlining how today’s concerns mirror perennial questions dating back as far as the 1950s.

Historically, government technical education initiatives have tended to require “product recalls”. Qualifications have been used to drive sector change rather than improved programmes of learning that directly shape learners’ progress and outcomes.

In essence, the requirements of employers that often lead the reform conversation need to be complemented by those of effective teaching, learning and assessment. However, as former Association of Colleges CEO Martin Doel says, the collaboration needed to acquire that balance has proved elusive in a marketised system.

Research about effective teaching in specific vocational areas is underdeveloped

The evidence is clear. The recurrent question of progression continues to blight the technical curriculum offer. Director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research, Professor Sandra McNally cited evidence that despite level 2 qualifications serving to facilitate progression, only about half of level 2 learners actually progress. By just missing a grade C in English, many drop out at 17+.

Designing clear transitions for young people with GCSE grades below C requires research, and so do incentivising local employers to engage, supporting student choices and narrowing the gap at 16+.

Making a difference in the classroom or workshop is also a hobbled process. Professor Kevin Orr’s research in STEM – supported by the Gatsby Foundation – is a shining example of what can be done, but research about effective teaching in specific vocational areas is generally under-developed.

Unfortunately, as Dr Sai Loo of University College London testified, the very concept of pedagogy is poorly developed in the UK compared to continental Europe. Where it exists, pedagogic discussion tends to be too locally based. CEO of education data intelligence consultancy RCU, Richard Boniface suggested lecturers could be organised at national level in specialist areas, but once again, that idea is not new. Former principal of City and Islington College, Anna Douglas pointed out that subject associations are important in promoting evidence-based approaches for school subjects, and that vocational equivalents are long overdue.

And producing better research alone is not sufficient. Ashton Sixth Form College assistant principal, Jo Fletcher-Saxon rightly pointed out that it needs to be communicated effectively to teachers. Thankfully, good practice exists for the sector to draw on. Bryony Evett Hackfort of Coleg Sir Gar set out her organisation’s work to build experimentation and enquiry into staff development activity, through teacher-training and whole-college professional development days.

Teachers can be encouraged to engage meaningfully with research evidence. The Education Endowment Foundation proves that in the schools sector. While some research conducted in school settings could be readily translated for use in the FE and skills sector, a dedicated and comparable organisation could be something truly new.

If we are ever to assert ourselves, and end the repeating cycle of poor policy and pressured performance, sound research on the specifics of vocational education, applied sensitively to practice and policy, will be central to the solution. Perhaps colleges could even hope for more sustained interest than the occasional policy one-upmanship of an election season.