A Tech-Bacc by itself isn’t going to help the ‘forgotten 50 %’ who don’t go to university. Neither is it going to raise the status of vocational education. It fits well with and legitimates, rather than challenges, Gove’s plans for creating more elitist academic qualifications. It also dovetails many of the proposals from the Wolf report, commissioned by Gove over a year ago. Besides, Lord Baker (Guardian 12/05/11) has also indicated that a Tech-Bacc would be the appropriate qualification for students in his University Technical Colleges. So the idea’s hardly new!
The low status of vocational learning is the inverse result of the cult of ‘academicism’. Consequently numerous initiatives designed to rectify this have failed miserably – remember the 14-19 specialist diplomas introduced by Tony Blair after rejecting Tomlinson’s overarching certificate? Without corresponding changes in the value system of society, any young person who is able, will enrol on A-level courses as they remain the only real currency.
The success of German vocational education in the post-war period cannot be disputed; but unlike the UK, German employers have always been far more integrated into a national training and employment plan. In the UK, as Professor Wolf indicates, most lower and intermediate level vocational qualifications have remained ‘worthless’ in labour market terms.
Finally, developments in the occupational structures of 21st century economies – particularly the whittling away of skilled manual work by automation and outsourcing manufacturing employment to be replaced by services – casts doubt on the need for full-time vocational education in schools and colleges. It’s still the case that most employment skills are learnt ‘on the job’ and it has been estimated that for about 40% of jobs in the economy, the ‘skills’ can be acquired in days.
With more and more graduates out of work or ‘underemployed’, Miliband is also wrong to assume that attending university in itself leads to labour market success. In fact, there are also thousands of forgotten graduates. He also seems unaware of the huge differences in status between HE institutions, in what they can buy you and what they can’t.
In uncertain economic times, Labour should be promoting a good general education for everyone with an emphasis on real life-long learning rather than truncated high stakes assessment at 16 and then 18. Most of all however, Labour should be promoting a plan for youth jobs. Expanding the Future Jobs Fund set up by the Brown government and recognising that it’s as expensive to keep a young person on the dole as it is to create employment for them. To do this however, would require major changes in macro-economic policy – already ruled out by Labour.
Likewise, plans for establishing more apprenticeships, have to recognise that the reason employers are not recruiting young apprentices is because they don’t need them. If they do, they run them themselves. In 2010 British Telecoms received 24,000 applications for 221 places on its advanced level apprenticeship but has since closed it.
A successful apprenticeship programme will depend on the success of an employment and job creation programme as a whole, not on a new raft of inferior qualifications for those who fail the E-bacc.