Let’s not cut the paths that lead to practical education

Published on Sunday, 03 February 2013 20:15
Written by Jan Hodges

Last week the think tank IPPR released the initial results of research that they are conducting – with the Edge Foundation's support – into the impact on vocational education provision of changes to school performance tables

The IPPR found that within a year of almost all vocational qualifications being stripped from the tables, 60% of schools were cutting practical learning provision and, of these, two thirds were doing so as a direct consequence of the changes.

If we were to believe all that is written in some parts of the popular press, such findings should be welcomed. However, what the research also made clear was the esteem in which these courses are held by teachers, even as they are forced to limit choice and cut vocational teaching time.

Four in five teachers agreed that vocational learning provides firm foundations for school leavers to join the world of work; 69% believed that they encourage young people to continue to learn and train.

It is clear, then, that teachers agree with us. The changes were too drastic, taken with too little consultation.

What we hear time and again from employers is that there are too few practical skills in the workforce, with those just out of school and university often criticised. Indeed, many industry bodies are clamouring for more involvement for employers in education.

However, by narrowing the number of qualifications that are taken into account in school league tables, the Government is giving little or no credit to those schools that provide vocational education, making it increasingly difficult for senior teachers to justify the investment in time and money. That means that the paths that young people can tread in school education are limited.

It is vital for the success of individuals, for the vitality of our society and, crucially, for the competitiveness of industry, that learners leave school with confidence, ambition and work-ready skills. This should be the case across the spectrum of abilities and interests. To achieve this common goal we need to ensure that 'learning by doing' is valued equally with academic learning, and that provision of both is an integral part of every young person's education.

A major aim of the Wolf Report was to find ways to drive up the quality of vocational education. We broadly welcomed Professor Wolf's report. She did not call for schools to drop vocational qualifications: she stressed, instead, the importance of quality, standards and rigour. She said – and Edge agrees – that high-quality technical and vocational qualifications deserve their place alongside equally high-quality general qualifications.

A good example is language qualifications. GCSEs and A Levels work well for those heading to university, while NVQs recognise the use of languages in practical and business contexts. Neither approach is better than the other. Rather, they help different people in different contexts. It is therefore particularly regrettable that language NVQs no longer count in performance tables.

Increasingly, we will need all sides – Government, schools and business – to work together so that we can ensure that our education system takes into account the many routes to success, and offers young people a choice of high quality academic and practical courses that are well regarded by employers and higher education.

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