VOCATIONAL ROUTE-COMPLEX AND TOO MUCH VARIATION IN QUALITY
Are schools choosing the easy options for pupils for league table positioning?
The media over the last two weeks has looked to vocational qualifications and routes to help address the shortfall in university places. Some six applicants are going for each university place and the head of the university admissions service has warned that at least 150,000 students will miss out on a degree place this year. The Ucas chief executive, Mary Curnock Cook, added there was evidence of a “very large number” – up to 70,000 – who were opting out of the system. One wonders exactly what these 70,000 will do. Some critics believe that far too many school leavers are being encouraged to go to university when it is not appropriate for them. A vocational route into employment could be much better for not only them but probably the economy too. We know too that there are structural problems in the job market. Even at the height of the boom, one in 10 of our young people were becoming Neets [not in employment, education or training]. This figure will, if anything, rise over the short term. This year, University Technical Colleges – pioneered by Edge chairman Lord Baker and the late Ron Dearing – have propelled vocational education to the top of the political agenda and there are real on –going efforts to raise the status of vocational qualifications and to close the divide between them and academic qualifications. Over 4 million vocational qualifications (VQs) were awarded last year, according to new figures released recently to mark VQ Day, the annual nationwide celebration of vocational qualifications. The overall number of VQs achieved has risen over 11 per cent from last year. However raising the status of vocational qualifications is made more difficult by the sheer complexity of the system and the myriad qualifications on offer. Some are much more valued by employers than others and with only patchy careers advice available many young people are not making informed choices, and do not have the support to help them navigate through the various options and routes into training and employment.
David Willetts, the universities Minister, made it clear recently that he had much more respect for BTECH qualifications than GNVQs as the former were closer to employers requirements and needs. He said on 24 August “We have let down people with vocational qualifications that have not always been valued by employers. But there are qualifications that employers do value, such as HNCs, HNDs, City & Guilds and BTECs. We will be backing qualifications, like those, which command a premium in the labour market.” His comments served to highlight the mixed messages about vocational qualifications being given to young people which serves to sow confusion and is hardly helped by the fact that many low level apprenticeships are also criticised by experts as being of little worth.
Diplomas, although not strictly speaking vocational qualifications, were supposed to attract more practically- minded pupils but have failed thus far to establish their robustness , credibility, or relevance , with too little take up . Universities , employers and independent schools are still not sure about Diplomas and this has hardly helped inspire confidence in the new qualification.
As far as HE is concerned there seems to be too many graduates for too few jobs and too few places this year to meet rising demand. A growing number of graduates are not in jobs that require a degree. Although it remains true that figures suggest that graduates are half as likely to be unemployed as the average 18- to 24-year-old.
And what about schools and vocational qualifications? A 2006 study by the London School of Economics suggested that the most disadvantaged pupils were five to six times as likely to enter exams other than full GCSEs. A report this week from the centre right think tank Civitas ‘Unqualified Success: Investigating the state of vocational training in the UK, carries a warning about some vocational qualifications. Many vocational qualifications in schools are not, it claims, ‘ fit for purpose’. The number of vocational qualifications (VQs) taken by school-aged students has risen dramatically, the most commonly taken known as ‘vocationally related qualifications’ (VRQs).
Civitas says ‘ As Edge, the vocational training campaign group states: ‘Vocationally-Related Qualifications (VRQs), such as Edexcel BTECs, City & Guilds and OCR Nationals. VRQs generally test knowledge of (or gained in) an occupational area rather than the full range of skills needed to do a particular job.’
Civitas found that: Students are being led away from basic academic subjects to learn how to serve drinks in Hospitality BTEC Firsts and to identify airport facilities in Travel and Tourism OCR Nationals. Even in compulsory academic subjects e.g. science, students are being entered for lower-level ‘vocational’ versions. So, Civitas concludes ‘ The reputation and worth of vocational training is being heavily undermined as ‘practically irrelevant’ qualifications are mis-sold as ‘vocational’. Evidence suggests that an educational apartheid is underway as lower-income students are considerably more likely to be entered for sub-standard qualifications, Civitas claims. It goes on-‘It’s imperative that we put an end to the bogus versions of vocational qualifications in schools which are harming both vocational training and the education of an increasing number of students.’ In 2008, 311,000 VRQs were taken by 14-16 year-olds. The current system of ‘equivalence’ at GCSE means that one of these vocational qualifications can be worth up to four A*-C GCSEs in the league tables. The conclusion is that this greatly incentivises their uptake in schools, with one eye firmly focused on league tables. Civitas believes that all too often a bogus vocational training route is being used simply as a way to take lower achievers off academic subjects. This is not the first time that Civitas has highlighted this issue. A recent report from them on Academies suggested that much of the perceived progress made by Academies might be put down to them choosing softer vocational options for their pupils , although it is hard to tell because few publish details of what exams their pupils are sitting.
This is changing as Academies are now subject to the Freedom of Information Act (unlike the quango that supports them-the SSAT-work that one out!)
What is clear is that the vocational/ academic divide is a complex area, and while some vocational qualifications are highly valued by employers some are not. Young people are getting mixed messages. There is a danger that schools encourage pupils to take qualifications that help the school in terms of league table positioning but which are not in the longer term interests of pupils. It is in all our interests firstly to ensure that vocational qualifications are robust and valued by employers, secondly that they are properly resourced and taught, and thirdly that young people receive impartial advice as early as possible in school to ensure that they make informed choices ,that best suit them. None of this is happening as often as it should.