Full-time vocational education courses developed in colleges and school sixth-forms in response to increased staying on rates from the 1980s. They were seen as alternatives to academic learning and offered through training organisations like City & Guilds and BTEC now long since subsumed into larger examination awarding bodies. They concentrated on particular occupational areas, particularly those in the growing service and business sectors. They also included a number of ‘generic’ or ‘soft’ skills like ‘team working’ and ‘personal development’ which, it was argued, were now essential in the changing workplace. Delivered through assignments and projects.– the ‘new vocationalism’ as it became known, was generally considered to be a progressive pedagogy with many young people liking to learn this way.
Vocational qualifications also became an integral part of the KS4 curriculum –the first stage of a ‘vocational pathway’ proposed by Sir Ron Dearing as part of his review of the National Curriculum in the 1990s. The current University Technical Colleges (UTCs) directed by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, which offer specialist 14-19 education are a continuation of this approach. Though designed to help in the transition to work, Advanced Level vocational qualifications have been used for entry to higher education – to the ‘new’ universities, rather than elite institutions. Vocational qualifications have also been included in school league tables, counting as several GCSEs. As a result, many schools made them an additional part of the curriculum for students who had chosen academic courses.
Officially equal in status to academic qualifications, research continued to show that it is lower performing students who are enrolled on vocational courses. Vocational qualifications have also been criticised for lacking ‘rigour’ with the Wolf Review –commissioned by the Coalition – concluding that many lower level vocational qualifications were ‘worthless’ in terms of increasing employment opportunities. It argued that young people would be better off learning in the workplace and doing apprenticeships.
The Coalition and now the Conservative government have been very harsh on vocational qualifications. To be included in performance tables and in the new ‘TechBacc’ they have had to meet certain requirements in relation to their content and the type of assessment they use. The old style BTEC qualifications loved by many teachers will no longer exist. Students on construction courses for example, are now required to study trigonometry and Pythagoras, with new Ofqual rules requiring a minimum 0f 25% external assessment. The number of eligible qualifications has also been reduced. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that it’s likely to alienate many of the young people more engaged through the vocational approach.
In other countries, vocational pathways have been linked to apprenticeships and employment training, in the UK this has not been the case. Though employer representatives and Ofsted have called for more emphasis on vocational learning and a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic curriculum, there is certainly no evidence individual employers consider applicants with vocational qualifications to be more qualified for work. On the contrary, research shows that, with a few exceptions, it’s the traditional academic subjects that have continued to have much greater status and attract the highest returns in the labour market.
Also, as the occupational structure changes and people are likely to have a number of very different ‘careers’ during their working life, that’s if they are the lucky ones and are able to secure work at all after a new wave of digitalisation, it’s questionable whether any specialist vocational study from a relatively early age has any benefit. If vocational courses are to remain on the school curriculum it is important that they are part of a broad general education that covers a range of learning experiences. It also important that as well as just teaching how to, they cover a variety of issues about ‘work’ –its social context and changing nature.