Wolf Review of Vocational Education

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Education minister    Michael Gove has commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to carry out a review of vocational education. As Wolf notes in her letter ‘calling for evidence’ the review is part of a new government   approach   to qualifications, but it won’t be examining the detailed content of vocational qualifications but on ‘effectiveness and overall structure’.

Many would accept some of the Tories criticism of vocational learning not being ‘practical’ enough. Under New Labour, part of an attempt to achieve more parity with academic education,   vocational qualifications like GNVQ were turned into ‘applied’ GCSEs and A-levels, with more formal written assessment and an emphasis on ‘knowing’, rather than ‘doing’- something exemplified by the new diplomas.   Announcing the review, Gove argued that the lack of value given to ‘practical’ education has resulted in a skills gap – a shortage of appropriately trained and educated young people to fulfil the needs of our employers.  For Wolf this can only impede economic recovery.

Rather than a skills shortage however, there has been a continued decline of craft occupations and skilled manual work, part of the wider demise of manufacturing. There has also been the disappearance of thousands of white collar ‘admin’ jobs that have not been able to survive the ICT revolution in the office.  It is true that in their place there has been an increase in managerial and professional jobs, but there has  been an upsurge in unskilled and casualised employment at the lower end of the service sector with jobs that can be learnt in a matter of hours – and a layer of ‘customer services’ jobs that also require little prior-knowledge, only a low level of generic competence that most people already have.  

Employer representatives have been constantly complaining about what they consider to be the failings of the school system, yet – apart from demands for basic literacy and numeracy – they have never really been clear about what they want. They have certainly not valued, or even understood, vocational qualifications and have not actively endorsed or been really involved in the 14-19 specialist diplomas. Instead, Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy told the Daily Mail (14/10/09) that the only skills his supermarket needed amounted to ‘paper kept to a minimum and instructions simple’. Wolf herself has often argued, for instance in her 2002 book Does Education Matter? and more recently in a  pamphlet for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, that many of the lower level vocational qualifications that young people had been persuaded to take, were of little use to them.

So the economic necessity of a more practically based learning at this level is disputable. If Gove was really interested in developing new skills amongst young people he would be instructing Wolf to look at particular types of qualifications and conducting a proper skills audit with employers. In fact, rather than reforming qualifications, their future will be determined by the market. For example, though they have scrapped the new ‘academic’ diplomas in humanities, languages and in science, the Tories won’t be abolishing the diplomas they have been so critical of – instead schools and colleges will be able to offer them without being part of a consortia or being part of a ‘gateway’.

The Tories have announced the expansion of apprenticeships, with £150 million being made available to fund another 50,000 places, but the reality is that many employers simply don’t need apprentices and as Labour found, the Coalition will find it difficult to recruit enough, despite the subsidies available. Without much greater backing from employers, many apprenticeships, like many of the Youth Training Schemes of the 1970s and 1980s will continue to be delivered by further education or private sector training providers and thus represent ‘apprenticeships without jobs’ (Cf. Finn 1987 Training Without Jobs).

With unemployment amongst the 18-24 year old age group remaining at17% plus, young people won’t be motivated to choose vocational courses if these don’t lead to real employment opportunities and don’t have any comparative status with ‘academic’ ones.  If, as it’s often maintained, the 21st economy will change so quickly that people will be required to move from sector to sector and have several ‘careers’, then who would want to lock themselves into a specialist vocational area at 14? Instead, any young person who can, will sign up for GCSEs and A-levels in the hope they will provide access to established universities and at least a chance of a managerial or professional job. (Even if surveys show graduate unemployment rising and that1 in 3 graduates consider they are over qualified for their current posts and that prospective entrants are increasingly required to complete unpaid internships.)

As New Labour was beginning to realise, what’s really needed is a proper employment policy for young people, but instead, the Coalition have abolished the ‘Jobs Fund’ – a scheme where out of work young people were given a job, generally in the public or voluntary sector, based on research evidence that it is as expensive to keep them out of work as it is to provide subsidised employment opportunities. Even if the scheme only provided sixth month, rather than permanent employment, it was a small step in the right direction.

Rather than discredited economic arguments, the main reasons for Gove’s review of vocational education are ‘social’ and are designed not only to restore the elite nature of traditional ‘academic’ learning but also to streamline its uptake. Despite its failures, New Labour was trying to move towards a more integrated curriculum, but it didn’t challenge the primacy or the nature of academic learning, trying instead to widen access to it and thus playing into the hands of right-wing critics of so-called ‘dumbing down’.

 The Tories want to turn the clock back to the rigid divisions of the 1944 Act, not only wanting a more differentiated curriculum, but also one where different types of learning take place in different institutions. Even though Kenneth Baker’s new ‘University Technical Colleges’ might sound attractive to some people in that they might be able to challenge the dominance of academic education, only 100 are proposed and as a result they will cater for a relatively small number of students. Like the (failed) technical schools of the 1944 Act and the Baker’s dozen of City Technology Colleges in 1986, they represent another attempt at creating a ‘middle stream’. The reality for most of the young people filtered out of the academic track will predictably be rather different. Rather than widening divisions we need a good general education for everybody.

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