The Government’s recent reforms to education have focused on improving the quality of academic provision and on fostering academic excellence. The introduction of the Ebacc has spurred more schools to offer a range of traditional academic subjects – English, Maths, Science, Languages and Humanities – to more students. Reforms to school league tables have pushed out some of the shoddy, dead-end vocational qualifications that had been on offer in some schools. While moves to improve quality are always welcome, recent research from the Institute of Education shows that the academic route through education may not be meeting the needs of all learners, with up to 1 in 3 students dropping out of A-level courses.
Other research for the DfE shows that at least 1 in 10 students are classified as ‘disengaged’ from education, with other estimates even higher, where 25% of such students end up as Neets by age 17. Previous government schemes like Young Apprenticeship and Increased Flexibilities – both offering a greater degree of work-based, practical learning to students aged 14-16 – showed positive outcomes in terms of attainment and improved attitudes and motivations towards education. In our latest Policy Exchange report, Technical Matters, we advance the case for an alternative route through the education system from 14-19 with a focus on high quality technical and vocational provision that could help to meet some of these challenges.
Vocational education in England has come in for deserved criticism of late. A major review by Prof Alison Wolf uncovered how schools had been prioritising their own league table performance over the needs and best interests of learners. Many students were being herded into low quality vocational courses which claimed ‘equivalence’ with two, three or more GCSEs, allowing schools to improve their league table rankings but leaving students themselves with poor qualifications not recognised by employers. Reforms to remedy this situation were welcome and necessary.
However, a consequence of Ebacc and league table reforms has been to constrain choice for students. A report by Ipsos-MORI for the DfE showed that over a quarter of surveyed schools had dropped subjects such as Design & Technology as a result of the Ebacc, with 1 in 5 of those schools dropping BTECs, popular vocational qualifications. Interviews conducted as part of our research revealed teachers’ concerns that they would no longer be able to meet the needs of non-academic learners in school curricula, feeling compelled instead to offer subjects that would count in DfE statistics. One headteacher, from a school serving less academically able students, described this situation as a “disaster”.
Delivering education of the highest quality is an important goal for everyone involved in education. However, in a national education system, there are other important goals, not least of which is meeting the needs of all of the students within that system. These two goals are not incompatible. Demanding – and celebrating – excellence for academic learners does not preclude us from doing the same for those who learn in more practical and applied ways. We need to ensure that an alternative route through education is held to the same exacting standards to which we hold academic learning.
Vocational education has for too long been dismissed as a second tier for the second best, subject to a deep-seated and snobbish cultural antipathy, as many participants in our research observed. To ensure the highest quality of provision our report recommends that we borrow lessons from international examples of effective technical and vocational systems such as Germany and the Netherlands. This means involving employers in a much more substantive way with education, by informing the curriculum, taking the central role in quality assurance of provision, and engaging with schools and colleges to ensure labour market relevance of the qualifications on offer.
Alongside this we make further recommendations to ensure that schools are inspected in this type of provision to the same high standards as colleges, and that students make the decisions about the type of provision that is right for them in the context of full information and with a stronger approach to providing comprehensive advice and guidance.
The public seem ready for an alternative way to ‘do’ education in Britain, with 47% of people polled by YouGov as part of our research indicating that they felt there was too much emphasis on academic learning in our schools and not enough on practical and job-related learning, while only 21% felt that the balance was about right. Meanwhile, employers complain that the education system is not meeting their needs or producing young people with sufficient employability skills and, partly as a result, the number of apprenticeship starts for 16-18 year olds has fallen by 10% in the last year.
A reformed system offering a high-quality technical and vocational route through education could encourage businesses to hire more apprentices while better preparing students for the world of work and, perhaps most importantly, moving us towards a system which meets the needs of all of our young people, academic and non-academic alike.