New Government figures (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lowest-rate-of-young-people-neet-for-20-years) show the number of 16-18 year old NEETS at the lowest level for 20 years with a drop of a fifth over the last year. 81% of the age group were in education or work based training at the end of 2013 (70% in full-time school or college). The reduction in NEETS coincides with the raising of the ‘participation rate’ rather than reflecting an increase in the number working –ONS statistics for Feb to April 2014 showed only 85 000 of the quarter of a million 16 and 17 year olds who have left full-time education have found work. Apprenticeship participation also continues to be very low,– figures (https://radicaledbks.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/apprenticeships2.pdf) showing only 71 000 starts by those under 19 and less than 6% of 16-18 year olds in ‘work-based’ learning. In fact , even before the raising of the participation age, as the Wolf Report recognised, most 16-17 year olds are as likely to have been ‘pushed’ back into full-time education because of lack of alternatives, rather than ‘pulled’ back by the prospect of increased opportunities for social mobility.
With increases in staying-on, there will continue to be debate about the nature of the 16-18 ‘sixth form’ curriculum with Labour being the strongest advocate of a new vocational/technical pathway (A Tech-Bacc) for the 50% of young people who don’t go to university. Yet it’s extremely unlikely that following a vocational course will increase the chances of employability. Few employers are familiar with vocational qualifications, those who may be, are still likely to favour candidates with A-levels –while those young people who can, continue to enrol for academic courses. Many of the ‘middle’ or ‘technician level’ jobs which these qualifications (and apprenticeships for that matter) are said to lead to, are now disappearing –or are being done by ‘overqualified’ graduates, while according to surveys, most employers report that they are generally happy with the skills of school and college leavers and that the majority are ‘ready for work’ (www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-employment-in-an-international-context). The problem is that so few seek to recruit them!
Following Wolf’s advice that they provide low labour market returns, Michel Gove has pruned the number of vocational qualifications that are available, demanded more ‘rigorous’ content and that they take on some of the characteristics of academic learning. Here, he is at odds with Lord Baker who continues to open more University Technical Colleges (UTCs) providing vocational specialisation at 14 ( https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/book-review-bakers-proposals-are-not-a-real-alternative-to-gove/).
But if ‘vocational pathways’ do not provide opportunities this does not mean we should see the current academic qualifications as the way forward. In an increasingly uncertain world, all 16-18 year olds need a good general education that includes academic, vocational, practical and community based learning; but which also uses e-learning to the full and develops research skills.