Can renewed interest in vocational education and training lead to its revitalisation?

AnnMarieBathmakerpost by Ann-Marie Bathmaker
Professor of Vocational and Higher Education, University of Birmingham

Vocational education, education, education is one of the new best solutions for both Conservative and Labour parties in the lead-up to the next election. Intermediate skills for middle-skilled occupations are expected to address the needs of employers, and overcome unemployment and under-employment, particularly amongst young people, where the unemployment rate remains close to 20%. It may seem strange to suggest that vocational education and training is the solution to achieving these skills for the Coalition Government, in the light of Alison Wolf’s very public vilification of vocational qualifications used in schools. But there is a quiet revolution taking place in 14-19 education, which has created dedicated vocational routes from the age of 14. University Technical Colleges have opened across England. There are currently 17. There are expected to be 30 more by 2016. These colleges (they are actually academy schools) are backed by the Baker Dearing Foundation and specialise in technical education. And from September 2014 new Career Colleges will offer full-time education for 14-19 year olds, so that they can study in a further education setting rather than school.

The Labour Party is equally keen to embrace vocational education. It is the solution for the ‘missing 50%’ – those who Ed Miliband admits were ‘overlooked’ by former Labour policies on widening participation in higher education. The missing 50% have been rediscovered, and there are plenty of suggestions being developed by Labour on how to address the needs of this overlooked middle.
For both main parties, this means reforms to vocational qualifications. The Coalition government is introducing newly-named vocational qualifications from September 2014. Proposals coming from Skills Taskforce advising Labour suggest that the Labour Party will support some form of overarching diploma. We are assured by both parties that apprenticeships will be expanded and improved. Higher level vocational education, rather than general HE, is becoming defined as the follow-on step towards middle-skilled occupations.

If this renewed interest in vocational education and training is to mean opportunities for revitalisation, then we need to address some of the long-standing problems that have not gone away.

Firstly, much vocational education continues to be ‘for other people’s children’, the working-middle and the middle-working classes, as well as the last resort for those at risk of becoming classified as NEET.

Secondly, vocational education leading to technician-level employment and associate professional occupations is distinct from professional education leading to the professions. Progression routes from vocational to professional education are weak, and opportunities to progress from technician or associate professional work to professional occupations are difficult or impossible. The need to change this is noted by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, but the difficulties of overcoming the class-based nature of these distinctions will require considerable work.

Finally, supply-side solutions will not address demand-side problems. This has been emphasised by labour market and vocational education researchers again and again over the years. Employer intervention in education and training does not automatically create jobs for people to do once they are trained. Renewed stipulations that employers should design, define and drive vocational education, with no parallel demands to reshape labour markets and employment opportunities, mean that any possibilities in a revitalised vocational education and training fall at the first hurdle.

Heroic policy does not address these issues. Instead, heroic policy overlooks long-standing inequalities that vocational education of itself cannot overcome.