From education to employment

Changing the narrative on vocational results

David Gallagher

Results days are defined by the achievements of learners. Whether it’s on a local level, with accounts of individual excellence and triumph through adversity, or on a national level, where the media compares results to previous years. In some senses, this year has been no different. But the ongoing narrative around ‘grade inflation’ at A Level and GCSE, as well as the broadening attainment gap between different educational institutions and economic backgrounds, has caused a huge amount of discussion over how we can reshape the current education system into something altogether more equitable.

Despite the importance of this issue, there are still stories which are not receiving the publicity they both deserve, and in fact need. Last week, more than 340,000 learners received their vocational and technical qualification results, alongside around 200,000 students who received their A Levels. Evidently, technical and vocational qualifications make up a huge proportion of the number of results given, but they receive a disproportionately low amount of coverage.

This isn’t a new issue. Vocational qualifications are consistently undervalued in the national media. But in a year in which trust in the current academic system is at a major ebb, vocational and technical qualifications have remained stable and reliable. In addition to the robustly quality assured Teacher Assessed Grades, many learners continued to complete their courses (with slightly adapted delivery and assessment methods) throughout the full year and move into jobs. In fact, at NCFE, we certificated around 380,000 learners in the 2020-21 session but only around 60,000 of these were awarded through a Teacher Assessed Grade.

Of course, the pandemic has had an impact, but it would be remiss not to highlight the positive progression routes apprenticeships, and other vocational training routes, have provided during an unprecedented period. For quite some time now, everyone in the sector has been saying that we need to step away from a fixation on university as the only viable route for learners. Many people look back on the New Labour government as architects of this phenomenon, but in reality, it goes back much further. University has always been positioned as aspirational, as the only way to break free from your class and enter high-paid, high-profile careers. Not only is this view deeply condescending to those following technical and vocational routes, but it’s fundamentally incorrect.

And while we all can continue to be justifiably frustrated at this state of affairs, the best way to dispel this myth is to ensure that we are continually promoting and encouraging excellence in our system. There’s already so much to celebrate. NCFE is firmly aware of the exceptional work underway thanks to our first-hand, daily experience of working with colleges, educators, and learners, but the system requires holistic support to foster the cultural change which is required.

High-quality learning experiences build confidence, self-esteem and enable people to be the best they can be. Central to great learning experiences are great educators, and for technical education to get the credit it deserves – and more broadly, for the UK to be competitive on a global scale – we know that we need more truly world-class educators in our technical education and skills system.

For our part, that’s why we have invested in the WorldSkills Centre of Excellence – working directly with educators so that they become artful and inspiring world-class teaching practitioners, ultimately driving systemic change within colleges and training providers. As this programme heads into its second year, I am excited to see its impact continue to grow in positive, transformative ways, by empowering more teachers and inspiring more learners.

As apprenticeships are climbing the political agenda, now is the time to positively shape public perception of vocational education. Learning has the potential to be the ‘great leveller’, creating a fairer and more inclusive society through the power of education. But central to this vision is a fair choice between educational routes. Hard work should be celebrated, rewarded, and highlighted regardless of whether it takes place in a Sixth Form, FE College, university, or shop floor. There are an endless variety of stories for us to share, if only we’re brave enough to back them.

By David Gallagher, CEO for NCFE

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