How important is vocational education?

24 Apr

The National Curriculum will change from September 2014.  A notable feature is that it is a much slimmer document than the one set by previous government.   The focus will be on the acquisition of knowledge.

In mathematics, children will be expected to know their tables and all about fractions.  They will be required to take the subject up to the age of 18. In English, there will be a much greater concentration on phonics, grammar and punctuation.   There will also a requirement for pupils to imbibe scientific knowledge across all the key stages.  In design/technology, pupils will be exposed to various aspects of technology, including robotic, computer aided design and coding.

Schools will be expected to prepare for the new curriculum in ways that they think best. No more will government take an active part in “rolling out” as they famously appear to be have done in the past – their ways of delivering the curriculum.  The mandarins in the DfE have stressed that government will not dictate the How – only the basic What.   Even in regard to the latter, it will be up to schools to expand this slimmed down curriculum to embrace learning in an holistic form.

What appears to be absent from the discourse is the inclusion of vocational education, the Cinderella of the curriculum.    However, schools could capitalise on the government’s slender curriculum to include vocational subjects, albeit Professor Alison Wolf’s report in the spring of 2011 resulted in the Department for Education culling a number of Mickey Mouse subjects that were taught and studied in the past for the purposes of schools upping the ante on the national GCSE league tables – subjects such as flower-arranging.

Professor Wolf ruled that too many vocational qualifications were useless.  Notwithstanding, she did remark that vocational education was important for the nation’s youths.   “Conventional academic study encompasses only part of what the labour market values and demands,” she wrote.   “Good vocational programmes are respected, valuable and an important part of our educational programme.”

In her observations, she implicitly supported Ex-Chief Inspector Tomlinson whose attempts at creating a post-16 twin-track (academic and vocational) curriculum came a cropper under the Labour government in the early Noughties.

Wolf made vocational education respectable.  Her first recommendation, which the government adopted enthusiastically, was that young people should be given incentives to undertake the most valuable qualifications.

Despite this, vocational education is still perceived as the poorer brother/sister of its academic sibling.   Bright students avoid the vocational subjects.  Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, has been examining practices in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland and Spain and developed a plan.  In its report, Attractiveness of initial Vocational Education and Training: Identifying what matters, Cedefop makes a plea for a national strategy not just of vocational but also work-based education.

In its flyer to the main report (see here), Cedefop states that previous studies on how attractive and valuable people found vocational education and training (VET) focused on the influence of specific characteristics of the VET system.   These included providing guidance and counselling and opportunities to move into higher education, the qualifications system.  However, VET was not viewed as being attractive, per se.

In the current study, Cedefop shows that the composition and respective strengths of the labour market, expenditure on vocational education and other factors such as the views of family members, perceptions about the quality of VET and the broader educational context all play vital roles.  The study ends with insights into how to influence perceptions of VET. The authors suggest that students and graduates could be used as messengers to apprise the public at large – through social media and the internet – about the benefits of the sector.

The government appears to be listening.  It has announced establishing a specialist college to train engineers to work on the high-speed rail project, HS2.  When students see the relevance of education they are more likely to be motivated to study further.

Vocational education is held in high esteem in Austria, Finland and Hungary where there is improved guidance and counselling for students and skills competitions.

Meanwhile, the Erasmus+ programme – launched in January 2014 (see here) – aims to help more than 4 million people in the EU to study, train, work and volunteer abroad.  For this purpose, the EU has set aside £12.1 billion to modernise education and boost skills and employability.

The original Erasmus programme was established a quarter of a century ago as a university student exchange scheme.  Erasmus+ combines this and other current programmes for education, training, youth and sport.

The current programme will fund 125,000 schools, vocational education institutions, youth organisations and enterprises to set up 25,000 “strategic partnerships” to promote an exchange of experiences and links with the world of work.   Another 3,500 educational institutions and enterprises will be supported to create more than 300 “knowledge alliances” and “sector skills alliances” to boost employability, innovation and entrepreneurship.

While unemployment is rampant in Europe, there are 2 million job vacancies in the EU. This is unsurprising because a third of employers have reported difficulties finding people who have the required skills.   Can an enhancement of vocational education plug the gap?

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