Martin Allen argues that Labour’s manifesto leaves as many questions as it provides answers
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.
Vocational education is supposed to improve work and employment skills, but many of the vocational courses developed in schools and colleges after the collapse of industrial apprenticeships in the 1970s have not offered real opportunities for young people in the labour market. Instead, a succession of vocational courses and qualifications were introduced, lasted a few years and were then discarded in favour of new ones.
Some of these were high profile youth training schemes with new qualifications, such as the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) that claimed parity of esteem with A-levels. Some were expensive white elephants like the specialist diplomas championed by New Labour. The most durable were the BTEC awards. They all aimed to provide new types of ‘soft skills’ needed across the growing service sector.
Even though vocational qualifications offered at Advanced level provided opportunities to enter higher education, academic qualifications continued to represent ‘powerful knowledge’ in terms of the jobs market and access to more prestigious universities. Schools and colleges in the 1990s were encouraged by Lord Dearing’s pathways approach to his review of the National Curriculum to use vocational qualifications for ‘non-academic’ students. The more student-friendly pedagogy and less hierarchical classroom relationships involved in these new qualifications were said to reflect the modern workplace but also provided ways for teachers and lecturers to gentle these students along a low status route.
However, the repackaging of vocational qualifications as ‘applied’ learning – part of New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals – could not widen the student base nor gather greater employer support. As a result, many teachers and educationalists continued to be suspicious of the pathways approach, seeing it as reflecting the divisions of the 1944 Act and contradicting the comprehensive principle of an inclusive and broadly balanced curriculum. More recently, the standing of vocational qualifications was reduced further as some schools entered entire cohorts for vocational ‘equivalents’ to improve their standing in GCSE league tables.
On coming to office, Michael Gove commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to review vocational learning. Wolf argued that students put on vocational pathways at 14 were ‘short-changed’ in the labour market because of the poor quality and low value of these courses. In response, Gove streamlined the number of vocational courses available at 14 and 16, but also demanded more ‘rigour’. By this he meant that to qualify as one of the eight subjects on which new school league tables would be formulated, a vocational qualification had to follow certain criteria, could not count as more than one GCSE and had to have more external assessment.
But Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach was rejected by Lord Baker, the creator of City Technology Colleges in the 1980s. Baker argued for a continuation of the Dearing approach and reintroduced University Technology Colleges to provide a vocational/technical specialism sometimes linked to a particular company or university.
Hunt’s ‘Two Nation Labour’ approach also proposes the rebranding of further education colleges as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’ for those school leavers who have failed on the academic route and Labour has already announced new Technical Degrees (www.radicaled.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/labours-new-technical-degrees/) involving part-time/ day release study – and as with the current two-year foundation degrees likely to be be delivered through the Further Education sector.
Labour’s desire to create a stronger ‘technician level’ route into employment is also reflected in its policies for reforming apprenticeships, where the Adonis Review correctly identifies many of their shortcomings. Firstly, apprenticeships are invariably low-level with minimal training, still predominantly for adults and mainly in low-paid service sectors like health and social care; customer service; and hospitality & catering. The Review also correctly calls for the public, rather than the private sector to play a leading role in apprenticeship creation.
Adonis, like Lord Baker, is an admirer of the success of German technical education and apprenticeships and his Review emphasises the need for a more general industrial strategy. But given the continued slide to a low-wage, economy with ‘lousy’ not ‘lovely’ jobs (http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/20002/1/Lousy_and_Lovely_Jobs_the_Rising_Polarization_of_Work_in_Britain.pdf), the sort of measures proposed are far too little, too late and well short of those implemented in post-war Germany! Adonis and Labour also overestimate the extent to which the UK’s industrial and technological demise can be arrested by the creation of ‘high quality’ vocational education and training. This would need to be linked to a massive increase of (public) investment and rigorous economic planning, hardly compatible with a UK style free market and ‘flexible’ economy.
In any case, the huge rise in the number of graduates means that they, rather than school leavers or apprentices, increasingly fill ‘non-graduate’ jobs. Surveys report between a third to half of new graduates being pushed down into jobs they are over-qualified for. Half a million applicants to higher education this year (a record number) shows that, despite debts for exorbitant fees to pay more for less at overcrowded universities, young people realise that a degree offers their best chance of the secure the professional employment they crave.
As a result, rather than trying to rebuild a vocational route, it would be better to provide a good general education for everybody with a school-leaving certificate at 18 providing entitlement to different types of learning, including learning about work as well as to work, plus major reforms to the delivery and assessment of ‘academic’ education to make it more relevant and accessible to all.