Where next for 14-19 vocational qualifications?

The Department for Education’s recent cull of more than 3,000 vocational qualifications taught in schools sparked a media response that exposed the bitter rift that continues to dog the thinking about our children’s education.

The print and broadcast media fastened onto – and belittled – nail technology and fish farming as examples of worthless qualifications. They fed the prevailing orthodoxy that only ‘real’ subjects like Latin and geography should be taught in schools, harking back to a time when facts were relentlessly drummed into young skulls.

While memorising information is, of course, a very important skill, it is questionable whether deep learning takes place. It also has almost no correlation with the world of work. Good vocational education teaches transferable skills which can be applied in the workplace.

The axing of so many school-based vocational courses is part of the implementation of the Wolf Report and aims to prevent what Professor Wolf saw as students being encouraged to pursue useless qualifications with no progression route.

The solution must be to allow pupils to study full-time at a college from 14″

For Education Secretary Michael Gove it put an end to the ‘gaming’ of the school performance tables by allocating the equivalence of two GCSEs to some of those vocational qualifications.

At their best, vocational qualifications offer a good general education with the hook of motivation – a powerful combination of learning the theory and then applying it. For example, a student on an A-level business course will learn about the theory of running a small business; on a vocational BTEC Business and Finance course the student would be asked to actually create a business.

Learning by doing is an unassailable theory of how we learn best; where would our Olympic hopefuls be if they could only watch top athletes perform before taking to the field of competition themselves? Vocational qualifications have always recognised that people learn in different ways but this does not mean that one approach is of less value. There is a place for both.

Fifty per cent of pupils leave school without the five A*-C grades at GCSE that are considered by successive governments to be the mark of an educated young person. For those students for whom that ‘traditional’ route has failed – those who leave school, disillusioned, before reaching their GCSE exams – vocational learning is often the answer. But it should not be delivered in schools where the physics teacher has been reassigned to teaching an engineering qualification in a design technology classroom.

They must provide progression to the next stage. Colleges, as hubs of vocational excellence, have found that students who had supposedly achieved a Level 2 in a vocational qualification at school were ill-prepared for Level 3 courses.

Vocational qualifications must be delivered by expert teachers in industrial or business-standard environments. Such experts integrate relevant maths, English, critical thinking and problem-solving skills within the course.

They develop an individual through the assignments they undertake, often including real projects for local employers, and turn out young people who are work-ready and future-proofed. Chef Jamie Oliver and TV gardening guru Christine Walkden both started their illustrious careers at college – Westminster Kingsway College, London, and Myerscough College, Lancashire, respectively.

So, what will be the result of the new direction for school league tables? There is enormous concern that schools will teach subjects that contribute to the E-Baccalaureate and will continue to plug away at the diet of academic qualifications which continues to fail half of our young people at 16.

The solution must be to allow pupils to study full-time at a college from 14; to resource schools so they can continue to allow young people to make an informed choice at 14 and 16, to recognise that one orthodoxy does not suit all. If not, we are in danger of driving more young people into the NEET classification, where their talents and ambition will be crushed and society as a whole will lose out.

Joy Mercer, Director of Education Policy at the Association of Colleges (AoC)

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