Over a third of German secondary school students go on to a vocational/technical programme. Now, Gavin Williamson, the latest in what is getting to be a long line of Tory education ministers, has promised that UK young people will have even better opportunities than young Germans, by the end of the next decade.
He plans to do this by creating ‘Institutes of Technology’ in every large city – extending an idea that first appeared in the 2016 Post-16 Skills plan, published by the Cameron government and then adopted by Teresa May.
Mr Williamson has a Herculean task, if not one that’s just pie in the sky! Only a handful of 16 year and 17-year olds leave school for an apprenticeship, while the number of those starting one at 19 is but a small fraction of those enrolling for university. It’s true that thousands of 16 to 18-year-olds study BTEC type courses every year, often studying in combination with an A-level. But rather than leading to employment, BTECs have also provided opportunities for thousands to progress to HE – but to the ‘new’ universities of the 1990s, not Oxbridge or the Russells.
(As Williamson acknowledges) attempts by both Conservative and Labour governments to establish a high-status vocational pathway on a par with Germany, have been a disaster, with nothing to suggest the new T-levels will be any different. In fact, when new qualifications have begun establishing themselves –like GNVQ for example, they’ve been repackaged and relaunched in new formats.
But Williamson clearly has little understanding of how German vocational and technical training has been organised – and as a ‘free-market’ Tory, won’t subscribe to the ideas of a ‘social -partnership’ through which employers, trade unions, local and national governments have constructed a system which bestows a ‘licence to practice’ and thus enables school leavers , unlike their UK counterparts, to make a transition to established employment.
In contrast, rather than being part of wider social relationships and encompassing rights and responsibilities,UK vocational qualifications are merely ‘credentials’ which compared to academic certificates, continue to have Cinderella status whatever Mr Williamson thinks. Thus, schools, conscious of the need to protect their A-level grades will continue to encourage ‘lower performing’ students to follow alternative courses of study.
But if 21st century employment patterns are anything to go by, many of the ‘middle jobs’ that vocational qualification have been designed to correspond with, will continue to disappear, meaning there is even less reason for trying to reinvent the vocational pathway and more need for a good ‘general’ education for everybody. This would also require the reform of the ‘academic track’ –but the Tories (nor Labour) have no plans for this.