Vocational progression must be treated like more academic options


10 Nov 2019, 5:00

Prospects and public perception would be improved by reducing the gap between funding rates for young people in techinal and vocational education and those on more academic pathways.  

It may come as a surprise, but UK adults are among the most positive in Europe about vocational education. Of 28 European countries, the UK ranks third for its views on vocational qualifications.

Sadly, our favourable views end there. When it comes to recommending this education route to a young person considering their post-16 options, the UK sits near the bottom of the table. This huge divergence makes us an outlier and captures the often-quoted perception that these pathways are for the children of “other people”.

One factor that may influence this perception is the difference in outcomes between young people following further educational pathways and those on more academic routes. Young people taking vocational or qualifications lower than A-Levels can, on average, expect to earn significantly less than those achieving a degree, and are likely to have worse health prospects and a lower life expectancy.

Of course, the pathways themselves are not entirely responsible for these differences, as there are significant variations in the backgrounds of those following further education pathways and those continuing to university. But this does not mean we should overlook the outcomes of these students.

New research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the Health Foundation, examines the life outcomes of this student group and considers what can be done to improve them.

One priority is to increase progression to higher levels. Currently, 79 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving A levels move onto a higher-level qualification by the age of 25, whereas only 42 per cent of students taking vocational or lower-level qualifications do so. Indeed, England is unusual in having such a tiny proportion of young people with an intermediate, level 4 or 5 qualification, despite high demand from employers and substantial salary returns.

This looks exceedingly difficult within the sector’s financial constraints

The government plans to introduce a quality benchmark and HE-style maintenance loans for level 4/5 qualifications to increase progression levels, but it is questionable whether this goes far enough.

The independent review led by Philip Augar of post-18 education and funding (to which the government is yet to respond) proposed that FE funding levels should match those in HE and the introduction of a lifelong learning loan allowance for  level 4-6 qualifications. But, without greater support for the most disadvantaged, the introduction of more high-quality progression options risks greater socio-economic segregation in our education system.

Those taking level 4/5 qualifications are more similar socio-economically to those taking a bachelor’s degree at a non-Russell Group university than they are to level 3 students. So increased access could leave the most disadvantaged level 3 learners stranded at that level, while their better-off peers progress.

What is more, those qualified to degree level are 40 per cent more likely to undertake further training than those educated to A level or the equivalent, so the benefits of a lifetime loan allowance could mainly accrue to those already holding a degree.

Of course, this is not to say that there should not be increased progression to higher qualifications, but just that disadvantaged young people will need to be supported to make this progress.

This looks exceedingly difficult within the sector’s financial constraints. Deficits have doubled over the past six years and, while the spending review committed an extra £400 million to further education, this one-year settlement only repairs around a third of the decline in per student funding since 2010-11.

This means that there is still a significant gap with funding rates in higher education, leaving investment some way behind those on more academic pathways.

Further education routes have the potential to boost a young person’s life chances by expanding the opportunities available, but without a long-term vision and more sustainable funding commitment, young people’s prospects may remain more limited, and public perceptions of their value are likely to persist.

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