Popularity of vocational training in UK not reflected in funding

7 Mar 2020, 6:00

School leavers are favouring a vocational qualification over a more academic path, yet not enough cash is there for them, writes Sam Tuckett.

Today’s 16-year-olds considering vocational pathways could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed by the number of options presented to them when they finish school.

This is now the position faced by most young people in England, with most opting for vocational or technical qualifications over a purely A-level route.

They might be further overwhelmed if they knew they would attract nearly a quarter less funding than their peers taking more traditional academic routes.

And they might be alarmed to know that funding for 16 to 19-year olds has fallen by 16 per cent in real terms since 2010/11.

Indeed, England is something of an anomaly by international standards, as shown in new research published by the Education Policy Institute.

Other OECD countries simply do not see such a gulf in spending for academic and technical routes – in fact on average, these countries spend 16 per cent more per technical student than they do on academic students.

In Germany for example, funding levels for students taking technical qualifications are 37 per cent higher than their academic counterparts.

This begs the question, why? Much of the answer lies in the kind of courses that are being funded, and how the offer to students in England differs to that in more successful countries.

Paradoxically, some factors suggest that the UK should actually have higher levels of funding for technical qualifications.

For example, young people in England are much more likely to be undertaking classroom-based education instead of an apprenticeship, with higher costs for the government in terms of providing the teachers and infrastructure.

But aside from this, the way our technical educational system is structured points towards lower levels of funding. In England, it is generally expected that courses will be completed within just two years.

There is no standard course length that applies in other countries, but compared to the highest performing, two years is markedly on the short side. In Austria, some programmes last as long as five years.

Students in most high performing countries will also follow a much broader curriculum, typically including English, the local language, maths and often subjects beyond the scope of the core qualification. In England, those that didn’t achieve a GCSE pass in English and maths at school will continue study in these areas, but others are able to drop these subjects. England is almost unique in the developed world in requiring students to specialise in such a small number of subjects at age 16.

It is also the case that we have a lower proportion of students on high cost courses such engineering which attract more funding. While it isn’t easy to make direct comparisons across countries, levels of student support here also reflect the current funding squeeze: in England the total money available has decreased by 71 per cent since 2010/11.

Technical education is therefore less well funded in the UK than in higher performing countries, at least in part, because students here get fewer hours and lower cost education.

So, where to go from here?

T-levels will help to bridge some of this divide. The 2020 rollout will include an increase in teaching hours and a substantial industry placement, and there has been a trickle of government proposals to rebalance funding towards the more technical subjects.

However, if we are to bring provision closer to that of high performing countries, and the Secretary of State is to realise his grand ambitions for technical education, including “overtaking Germany”, reforms must be bolder. But to really improve our international standing, we must first get the fundamentals right.

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