The Guardian (Editorial February 20th) has now joined the attack on University Technology Colleges* correctly arguing that directing ‘non-academic’ students’ onto a vocational curriculum at 14 – what it terms ‘backdoor selection’ – is wrong.
Some five years after Alison Wolf’s review had slammed many qualifications for being ‘worthless’ in the labour market, the paper likens the low status of vocational education, compared with academic learning, to the old grammar and secondary modern divide and calls for specialisation to be delayed until 16. This is now what the government intends as it seeks to rebuild what the paper describes as a ‘beleaguered’ vocational system through its Post-16 Skills Plan.
Redrawing the line of divide at 16 through the creation of a new technical route has led to alarm bells about the dilapidated state of the further education sector and the need for a major injection of funding. Nobody would dispute this, but what can be disputed is whether we need a vocational pathway at all? Employers have never taken it seriously and have continued to select recruits on performance in academic subjects, while significant numbers of young people with vocational qualifications continue to use them as alternative routes into higher education rather than to develop employment skills. With major changes in the occupational structure, particularly the collapse of ‘middling’ and technician level employment it’s even more questionable whether these sorts of qualifications are required.
Instead, surely young people need a good general education? Current academic qualifications do not provide this and it’s these that need to be reformed, rather than vocational courses. But the nature and basis of academic learning is rarely challenged, not least because most of those concerned with education policy and curriculum development have benefitted from the status and security that it has provided for them. Academics and educational professionals are very good at designing and redesigning vocational courses for other people’s children but are reluctant to visit their own back yard.
University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for 14-19 year olds, were established during Michael Gove’s period as Education Secretary but are most associated with Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the creator of the original ten subject national curriculum under Mrs Thatcher, but now a campaigner for better vocational education. Baker argued that Britain’s economic difficulties and low rates of productivity have been due to a shortage of technical skills and that it should adopt the German model of different types of schools with different types of curriculum for different types of students. This didn’t fit easily with Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach and it’s said the two had a strained relationship.
But UTCs have not been the success that Baker intended them to be, as Gove recently acknowledged in his Times column. Only 48 are open, just two more are planned for 2018, several have closed, many have experienced recruitment difficulties and a number have failed Ofsted inspections or been embroiled in financial scandals. At a time when the current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening and outgoing Ofsted boss Michael Wilshire have called for its expansion, why is the UTC initiative running out of steam?
There are in fact many reasons why 14 rather than 11 would be a better age to transfer to a new school, particularly with the majority of young people staying in full-time education till 18, but in the absence of this and with high stakes testing remaining at 16, parents have been reluctant to allow children to transfer from a secondary school where they have become settled. It isn’t clear either how UTCs will fit with the proposed Post-16 Skills Plan where those students not following the academic route through to university will be encouraged to transfer to further education colleges at the end of Year 11.
While there may have been some justification for technical schools in the immediate post-war years –Baker argues that there were never enough of them –there is much less of a case now, as many ‘middle’ or technician level jobs have been ‘hollowed out’ and if they do continue to exist, are likely to be filled by the excess of graduates. Many employer organisations also argue that future workers need ‘generic’ and ‘soft’ skills, rather than specialised instruction for jobs that are likely to change, if not disappear completely.
There is no clear evidence that UTCs in themselves have significantly improved employment prospects –though 29% of leavers are reported to have started apprenticeships (much higher than in other types of schools) this is still very low compared to the German technical/vocational schools which the UTCs have sought to emulate, but which have a more direct link with local employment plans. Local employers may continue to sponsor UTCs but this doesn’t mean that they are directly involved with them.
In the run up to the launch of the UTC programme, Baker called for an education that encouraged pupils to ‘get their hands dirty’, but the
alternative curriculum which UTCs were supposed to offer has been restricted by Ebacc and Progress 8 requirements. As a consequence UTC education has been ‘applied’ as much as ‘practical’ and has continued to be based on GCSEs, which themselves have become more academic and more traditional. Like in other schools, those that are able to are just as likely to continue on to university. (44% are recorded as doing this, higher than in state schools generally)
As a result, in an increasingly differentiated and competitive schools market, UTCs have found it difficult to maintain a distinct brand, becoming schools that nobody really wants.
As 2016 draws to a close we are still awaiting a statement on the English Baccalaureate/ upper secondary curriculum from new Secretary of State. Justin Greening – the consultation period for Ebacc ended almost a year ago.
Nicky Morgan’s – now largely shelved –White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere reaffirmed the Cameron government’s objectives of a 90% participation rate in the Ebacc subjects, but with entry rates for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) continuing to fall (in all other Ebacc areas they continue to rise) this has surely become unreachable? The Ebacc is not being prioritised as a performance indicator by Ofsted, leaving schools to concentrate on maximising their Progress 8 score.
Although Progress 8 is driven by Ebacc subjects, students do not have to do the complete Ebacc to maximise their scores. This explains why the provisional statistics for 2016 recorded a ‘neutral’ -0.03 overall average score for Progress 8, but only a 39.6% entry and a 24.5% pass rate for Ebacc. The Department for Education made no comment on this ambiguity. Perhaps Secretary of State Greening would rather the EBacc slide off the agenda and avoid conceding victory to the well organised and high profile Bac for the Future campaign, we should still expect an announcement of some sort though.
But as a result of the way it has been constructed – and that Key Stage 2 SATs results are being used as the baseline for value added calculations, Progress 8 cannot be considered an improvement on the Ebacc or even the lesser of two evils. Indeed the recent Kings College research on the effects of the Key Stage 4 reforms, sponsored by the NUT, reports widespread concern by teachers about its reliability and workload implications. Examination data also shows that non Ebacc subjects continue to be marginalised and that large numbers of secondary schools are beginning their GCSE programmes during Year 9.
Compared with Ebacc, there has been little, if any discussion about how to oppose Progress 8. Can it be reformed to allow a broader range of subjects to be included? Or should the main emphasis be on trying to find other value added measurements, rather than Key Stage 2 SATs?
2016 has seen the further erosion of vocational education at Key Stage 4 – the result of the Progress 8 requirements, but also Michael Gove’s qualifications cull which has prevented schools using a ‘vocational track’ at KS4 as no qualification can now be equivalent to more than one GCSE, if it is to be included in league tables -the Wolf Report also recommended no more than 20% of a student’s timetable should be spent on vocation learning.
2016 however, saw the publication of a post-16_skills_plan –even though the planned consultation appears to have been delayed. The Plan sets out proposals for new technical route into employment (the term ‘vocational’ is to be discarded) with new qualifications planned for 15 employment areas. Though not due to begin until 2019 at the earliest, the technical route will be ‘college based’.
At first sight this would appear to have significant implications for school sixth-forms which have continued to provide vocational courses as alternatives to A-levels, but most of the Business Studies, Health and Social Care and ICT ‘BTEC type’ qualifications offered by schools are now classified as ‘Applied’ and will be outside of the more occupationally specific technical track.
2016 also saw government continue to promote apprenticeships as an alternative to university for young people, the development of new ‘trailblazer’ specifications and the firming up of details for the employers levy. Yet over half of apprenticeship starts continue to be only level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and less than a quarter are by those under 19. With any guarantee of progression or even future employment, most young people that can, will continue with the academic route with the aim of progressing to university.
During 2016 a great deal of debate has taken place about 14-19 education, especially the design and suitability for particular students, but there has been little progress with developing alternatives. Neither has there been a real appreciation of the type of labour market that young people seek to enter – the implications of changes in the occupational structure for the future of many technician level qualifications for example, or that large numbers continue to end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified
If the immediate focus should be on developing curriculum alternatives, then over the longer term, because many young people are now no longer able to rely on education to ‘move on’, the real problem may be its potential loss of legitimacy.
The NUT has just released King’s College research on the effects of government policies on the secondary curriculum. Based on a sample of 1800 secondary members and in depth school case studies, key findings show amongst other things:
- 74% of teachers consider the Ebacc requirements are dramatically narrowing the curriculum.
- 84% worry that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well- being and mental health.
- Three quarters of teachers believe that the new ‘one size fits all’ GCSEs will be less suitable for low attaining students and have made the curriculum uninspiring and anachronistic.
- A general lack of confidence in ‘Progress 8’ – Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it, with widespread opposition to using unreliable KS2 SATs data as the basis for measuring progress at GCSE.
- 92% reporting their workload has increased as a result of the changes
- Increased concern about job insecurity as the non-Ebacc subjects are scaled down or become no longer available as a learning option, particularly as a result of funding cuts.
Download full report here
Last week the Department for Education released provisional performance data for secondary schools.*
The data includes the number of students ‘entering’ and ‘achieving’ the EBacc, Michael Gove’s flagship qualification designed to restore ‘rigour’ to the curriculum. For the former it’s 39.6% of all state funded students, up from 38.6% for 2014/15 and still nowhere near Nicky Morgan’s 90% target for 2020. For the latter, the figure’s 24.5% (compared to 24.3% last year) in other words less than 1 in 4.
The problem for the EBacc continues to be the modern foreign language requirement- last year two thirds of students did not enter a language, compared for example, with just 1 in 5 who did not enter either history or geography and 1 in 10 not entering science. (With English and maths, the subjects making up the EBacc) This year there have been 7% falls in French and German entries -though a slight increase in Spanish.
The DfE has been keeping rather quiet about EBacc recently and has not published the results of the consultation undertaken last year. Instead, it’s focusing attention on the progress-8 attainment measure – where it is possible for students to be able to maximise scores without a foreign language, though their performance in English, maths and three listed EBacc GCSEs must be included.
For Gove’s critics, rather than a step forward, EBacc was part of a return to a narrow, backward looking and elitist learning
– a way of imposing a grammar school curriculum without having to bring back the grammars.
In the future, if never able to properly establish itself in the majority of schools, the EBacc might serve as a necessary precondition for becoming one of Theresa May’s ‘selective’ schools?
There will be a new headline performance measure for secondary schools from September 2016. Schools will no longer be ranked according to the number of students passing achieving 5 A* to C GCSEs. Instead, Attainment 8 data will record the average score for their year 11 students across 8 subjects. More significantly they will have to publish data for Progress 8 – a new value added measurement. The Department for Education has invited schools to ‘opt in’ and provide Progress 8 data for 2015 – over 300 have done so. As well as Attainment 8 and Progress 8 data, 2016 performance tables will also include the percentage of students achieving grade C in English and mathematics as well as the English Baccalaureate.
For 2016, a student’s Attainment 8 is calculated on the following basis. 1 is equivalent to a grade G at GCSE with 8 equivalent to an A*. Mathematics is double weighted, as is English, provided the student has also been entered for English Literature. The student is then scored on three EBacc subjects and then three other GCSE or recognised vocational qualifications. Individual subject scores are totalled and then divided by 10 (because of the double weighting). A student scoring 4.5 in 2016 for example would be performing between a D and a C in their individual GCSEs
A student’s Progress 8 score will take on more significance. Performance levels at the end of KS4 will be compared with those at the end of KS2. A student producing a positive value- added return will be performing above the level expected by students with an equivalent KS2 performance and this will be expressed as a positive number  A school’s Progress 8 score will be the average score for its student cohort. For all mainstream students it will be expected to be at least zero. If a school is 0.5% below its ‘floor standard’ the school may come under scrutiny by Ofsted
What are the implications of Progress 8?
The government argues that because the new system is based on eight subjects it is broader than the EBacc and could mean the creative arts subjects are no longer squeezed out of curriculum. Also, because a student can include three vocational subjects in their score, it could represent a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic education in the way that Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wishaw appears to want In response to this however, a number of concerns can be identified.
Firstly, not completing the EBacc, will make it very difficult to record a positive progress 8 score. Schools will recognise this and concentrate resources accordingly. Secondly it’s unrealistic for Year 11 subject targets to be based on English and maths tests completed in Year 6. Progress 8 does not necessarily increase the chances of artistic and creative non-EBacc subjects returning to the curriculum. Schools will be reluctant to reintroduce these as it is likely results will be included in students’ scores immediately without there being the space for new courses to become properly established. Progress 8 is unlikely to encourage schools diversify their vocational provision. Instead they will continue to concentrate on the subject areas where they have expertise. To count in performance tables, vocational courses have had to take on many of the characteristics of academic qualifications. A student completing a non-recognised vocational course will score nothing.
Progress 8 will lead, almost inevitably to a further increase in the role of data and of those responsible for collecting it, in driving the curriculum. For example, data managers may insist that every student is entered (even if not properly prepared) for English Literature, to enable the doubling of their English score. Finally, Progress 8 can only increase in workload stress and cause a performance management nightmare with individual student attainment targets replacing group averages. In most schools, all of a student’s GCSE results will be included.
There are lots of unresolved issues surrounding Progress 8 on which teachers will need to remain vigilant.
 For a list of schools that have, see http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/group.pl?qtype=NAT&superview=sec&view=progress8
 The numerical calculations will change when the new 1-9 GCSE grading system is introduced from 2017.
 See the DfE Guide (page 16/17) for details of this calculation https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497937/Progress-8-school-performance-measure.pdf
 Michael Wilshaw speech to Centreforum 18/01/16 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/ambitions-for-education-sir-michael-wilshaw
 The numbers of vocational qualifications that qualify for performance tables have been severely reduced and no longer count as ‘multiple’ GCSEs. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381074/2015_KS4_list.pdf
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.