Claiming to offer a new alternative for young people at the upper end of secondary school and in Further Education, Labour’s election manifesto retains some old themes –particularly in its policies for vocational education where it wants to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate and ‘create a route for the 50% of young people who do not go down the traditional academic route’ (Labour Manifesto: 37).
The Techbacc will, Labour says, act as ‘gold standard’ qualification at post-16, be accredited by employers and include a quality workplace placement. This could be considered a welcome change after Michael Gove’s preoccupation with academic subjects of his English Baccalaureate, his obsession with returning to ‘grammar school’ assessment, with end of course written exams, rather than modules and the further obliteration of coursework. In many other respects however, there is a serious danger that past mistakes will be repeated.
A raft of different vocational awards have emerged since the 1990s, GNVQs, Vocational A-levels and finally the infamous Specialist 14-19 Diplomas on which Labour spent millions and which were already stalling by the time Gove came to office and quickly abolished the extra funding for them. Ironically many schools and colleges have now returned to the BTEC qualifications, that the reforms sought to replace.
The main problem with vocational qualifications is that they’ve never enjoyed the same status as academic ones and have been seen as only appropriate for ‘non-academic’ students. They’ve also lacked currency with the very employers who are said to need them. More significantly, the value of vocational qualifications is being further eradicated due to the polarisation of labour market opportunities and the disappearance of the sorts of ‘intermediate’ jobs they are designed for. Besides, employers now have plenty of under-employed graduates they can fill these jobs where they do remain!
Most reformers , including the National Union of Teachers, have recognised that either vocational and academic qualifications need to be properly linked together by an overarching certificate, which was the aim of the 2005 Tomlinson report, or that separate vocational pathways should be abolished completely and vocational study available as an option linked to a common core of a General Diploma. Previous Labour governments, reluctant to undermine the status of the GCE A-level have not followed this advice though. Reformers have also worked within a 14-19 perspective with the main assessment at 18, but, at least for the moment, Labour has accepted Gove’s GCSE reforms and with it the assumption that assessment at 16 should continue to be the most important part of secondary education.
Labour has said almost nothing about the detail of how the Techbacc will be constructed, so we’d have to assume that rather than spend money on new ones, a deficit reducing Miliband government would use either the existing vocational awards –those that have not been culled by Gove, or follow the approach of Lord Baker and his University Technology Colleges (UTCs) –although the manifesto says Labour will transform high performing FE colleges into Institutes of Technical Education, because of the Techbacc’s post-16 focus.
It isn’t clear either, how the Techbacc will exist alongside apprenticeships. While the Conservatives, following the recommendations of the 2011 Wolf Review, want to replace many vocational courses with apprenticeships, Labour has signalled its intentions to also provide apprenticeship opportunities for all young people qualified to do them. It wants to ensure that these run to at least level 3 (A-level equivalent) are also ‘gold-standard’ and that apprentices can progress to new technical degrees.
Given that many of the current apprenticeships continue to be low-skill and ‘dead end’ this is to be welcomed, but any future government will not be able to deliver apprenticeship promises, let alone rebuild vocational education as a worthwhile option for young people, unless there is an economic strategy to create higher skilled secure employment, rather than the low-paid, low skilled, ‘zero-hours’ jobs on which the recent ‘recovery’ has depended.