Labours Techbacc proposals seek to place vocational education centre stage

An important debate is now needed


Remember the Diploma? It was supposed to be the new qualification that helped bridge the yawning divide between academic and vocational qualifications.

The diploma was, in fact, the result of  a botched compromise in the wake of the rejected  Tomlinson proposals.(Tomlinson envisaged the demise of the A level-which  was politically unacceptable at the time) .

The diploma  never enjoyed even lukewarm support from most employers, top universities or the independent sector, despite much arm twisting from politicians and officials, who have done so much to undermine the integrity of our qualifications system through their interventions.

Tomlinson envisaged a bona fide inclusive diploma with genuine breadth. What we got instead was neither one thing, nor the other, designed by committee and not demand led.  As one prominent Headteacher said, in the early days of the diploma, when,  as anticipated by many, few were taking up the qualification, it   was   ‘ poorly conceived, poorly marketed and poorly implemented’.

Alan Johnson, when he was education secretary, should have set the alarm bells ringing when he said that diplomas were neither vocational nor academic qualifications-without quite getting round to  explaining what they actually were or why there was a need for them. Which group of key stakeholders ever got up and said ‘you know, the one thing we really need in our education system right now  is a qualification that is neither  academic nor vocational’ . In a desperate attempt to breathe life into an unpopular qualification that never had robust legs, politicians then over- sold it claiming that it might become the qualification of choice (Ed Balls) and even  replace the A level. In 2009 Ed Balls said “ Diplomas are popular with the people who matter in the job market – the employers,” That was  nonsense on stilts  at the time and is simply embarrassing now. (It seems that quite a lot of what Balls has said and done in the past has a habit of coming back to bite him).

Nobody doubts  the fact that our vocational and practical education is way behind our  major competitors and that we have an absurd  and debilitating divide between  academic and vocational qualifications.  But the diploma was an avoidable mistake. It was  not demand led, was  designed by committee, difficult to implement to a consistent standard across areas, was expensive and never won the confidence of key stakeholders. Politicians and officials do not determine a qualifications worth. The market does that. And the market spoke.

Labours new idea requiring a clear route to a gold standard vocational qualification at 18 called a Technical Baccalaureate deserves a closer look. It seeks to exploit the long standing concerns over how far we are lagging behind  in practical learning and how Goves Ebacc proposals have not much to say about vocational learning.  Labour   wants to ensure that employers are involved in designing  the new qualifications which is vital (this was  a claim made by the way before Diplomas were introduced-but employer interaction ended up getting a bit lost in translation)  Pupils will  complete a programme of work experience-again a sound idea- but work experience is worthless unless it is  part of a quality assured, structured arrangement  and supports the kind of soft  non-cognitive skills desired by  employers. Those getting the new award would also have to pass English and maths courses which sounds good-but this needs to be pitched right-so as not to put off a large section of pupils-but also to ensure that there is rigour there too.

One big problem, of course, backed by evidence, is that even now there are too few high quality specialist maths teachers around and far too few undergraduates taking STEM subjects. Many more good teachers will be required to satisfy this new demand, as well as high quality technical and vocational teachers- these cannot be conjured up at short notice-some long hard thinking has to go into how to meet this demand.

The Labour proposals, hopefully, will kick start an important debate which is long overdue.



Labour also want the £1bn-a-year government-funded apprenticeships programme  to be run by businesses, rather than ministers


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