Labour has published Qualifications Matter, proposals for 14-19 education, as part of its Policy Review (www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/Skills_Taskforce_3rd_report.pdf) . It’s going ahead with its support for a Tech-Bacc, something announced by Ed Miliband two years ago and designed for the ‘Forgotten 50%’ of school leavers who do not go to university. Under Labour’s proposals, all 14 year olds will have to follow courses in English and maths, undertake Personal Skills Development and an extended study or project, but will then follow either a technical (vocational) or general (academic) route to a National Baccalaureate qualification.
Resembling the tripartite days of 1944, these proposals should send alarm bells ringing amongst defenders of comprehensive education. Despite numerous attempts at reform, vocational education continues to experience lower status than academic learning with Alison Wolf in her review of vocational qualifications arguing that many vocational courses on offer to 14 year olds, were ‘worthless’ in terms of labour market entry. Wolf called for a limit (20%) on the amount of time they should occupy in Key Stage 4 learning. Employers have never put their weight behind vocational qualifications, preferring applicants from the academic route.
As a result, qualifications that have formed the backbone of the curriculum for many students, like the current BTEC First certificates for example, are no longer to be allowed to be used for league table purposes. The Coalition has also published a list of Advanced Tech and Applied level courses acceptable at post-16.
But other Tories, like National Curriculum creator Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, who has set up a network of University Technology Colleges (UTCs), have argued for more vocational specialisation after 14. Although it has not declared open support for Baker’s proposals for different types of schools for different types of learning; in many ways Labour is now closer to Baker, than Wolf or Michael Gove are!
‘One Nation’ Labour argues its Baccalaureate will provide a common exit qualification for all young people, yet recent surveys show only around 1 in 10 employers actively recruit school leavers anyway, but when they do, are relatively happy with ‘work readiness’ (www.ukces.org.uk/ourwork/employer-skills-survey)
Advanced level vocational qualifications are also associated with providing access to ‘technical’ or ‘intermediate’ level employment opportunities, but there is continued evidence that many of these ‘middle’ jobs are disappearing as the occupational structure ‘hollows out’ and becomes ‘hour-glass’ shaped – or, as we argue, more like ‘pear-shaped’( https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/the-hour-glass-economy/). Where these jobs do exist, they are more likely to be filled by university leavers finding they are unable to get ‘graduate’ jobs.
As a result, it’s even more important to argue for a good general education for everybody rather than specific ‘vocational’ opportunities. But this also means reforming the nature and content of academic learning – an area that reformers have tended to avoid as this will mean confronting the influence of elite universities and other groups that make up the ‘A-level’ lobby.
At the same time however, we can’t have the sort of illusions that One Nation Labour still entertains about the role that education can play in promoting ‘innovation and competitiveness’ as an alternative to ‘lowering wages for low-skilled jobs’ (QM p2). This won’t happen without an alternative economic strategy geared to the creation of sustainable employment opportunities and Labour doesn’t have one.