From education to employment

FAB CEO Jill Lanning: The Wolf Report – Friend or Foe?

It always seems polite for any organisation’s response to the latest Government policy proposal or the newest worthy report to be peppered with the words ‘We welcome …’ and ‘We are pleased to see…’ even if the organisation had to search to the last chapter to find something to welcome. So should vocational awarding bodies be going with the flow and start this reflection on the Wolf report with ‘We welcome Professor Wolf’s…? The probable answer is – it depends.

It depends on whether you believe the interpretation of the report by much of the national press that vocational courses are a waste of time or you want to recognise Professor Wolf’s own view that vocational qualifications are a “respected, valuable and important part of our … educational provision” which of course we are pleased to see. It depends how much you believe the statement by Michael Gove MP that he will do away with ‘the fog of acronyms, the mist of bureaucracy’ to allow awarding bodies to develop vocational qualifications that excite young people and prepare them for the world of work – something that we would warmly welcome. It depends on how many of the interlinked recommendations survive the cherry picking by civil servants and Ministers when there is no money to spare or a distinct lack of political will – let us not forget what happened to Mike Tomlinson’s review. And crucially it depends on the detail where we all know the devil lies.

The members of the Federation of Awarding Bodies for whom vocational qualifications are their business can at least be glad that vocational qualifications and education got a brief moment in the heady light of press coverage; after all any publicity is good publicity! But let’s be clear what we are talking about when references are made to vocational courses that ‘go nowhere’. Are these courses linked to qualifications that are designed to be a preparation for the world of work and never intended as a passport to a job in a particular sector? Are they qualifications intended to be the first rung on a ladder towards higher level occupational qualifications or are they in fact qualifications intended for those in work but inappropriately added to the school curriculum for reasons other than what is best for each learner?

Whenever a politician, academic, educationalist or commentator drops the word vocational qualifications into their pronouncements, there is a fair chance that each of them is thinking of a completely different type of qualification. A vocational qualification can be a Level 1 Certificate in Engineering and Technology, designed to be an introduction to the world of engineering through to an occupational competence qualification such as a Level 2 Diploma in Barbering where we would all hope that the learner gets practical experience and develops proper skills on their course.

If awarding bodies are to be able to provide flexible, fit-for-purpose qualifications for young people that support their aspirations (as well as all the other varied types of learners and their aspirations), we have to ensure that the proposals to reduce bureaucracy do see the light of day. The Federation has been arguing since 2006, when the QCF was an ill thought-through twinkle in someone’s eye, that it was not right to give all the power to the Sector Skills Councils to control exactly what vocational qualifications can be developed. They have an important contribution to make in telling us all about the skills needed and the pattens of employment in their sector now and in the future. But as Alison Wolf says, there is more input needed than that when designing and writing qualifications that will shape the future of young people. HE, teachers and lecturers, students and others all have a contribution to make.

Ofqual stand accused of inadequate quality assurance and regulatory arrangements although this is not quite how it feels for awarding bodies but we would say that wouldn’t we! Fortunately the report’s recommendations reflect the direction of travel in the Ofqual recent consultation ‘From Transition to Transformation’. Ofqual are already lining up the controls of awarding bodies that they believe are necessary to allow them to step back from the detailed accreditation of most qualifications. While we might take issue with some of the detail in Ofqual’s proposals, we do welcome this new approach.

If we are to accept Professor Wolf’s contention that GCSE Maths and English are vocational qualifications because of the importance that employers place on them, this raises the question of where does ‘general education’ stop and ‘vocational education’ begin? And what about the proposed 80/20 split in the KS4 curriculum? Do Maths and English GCSEs count in the 80% academic or the 20% vocational slice of curriculum time? Students and staff need reasonable blocks of time in the timetable to get to grips with practical work, case studies and project work and appropriate work experience is critical. With the dominance English Bacc in the performance tables, will it be feasible to deliver good quality meaningful vocational education in this new regime?

Vocational education can and should be stimulating and challenging with a relevance to real life that young people can find lacking in more academic subjects. The teaching and learning styles needed and continuous assessment approach are different to those needed for success in external examinations. A critical success factor in the quality of vocational education is the involvement of staff who understand how vocational qualifications work and who have real experience of the industry that they are introducing young people to. The agreement by Michael Gove that FE based QTLS holders should be recognised as fully qualified teachers in schools is to be welcomed.

Which brings us to the ‘pesky’ performance tables and the lurking devil in the detail of what would be required for a vocational qualification to count in the tables. The Report sets out some general principles, including something referred to as ‘external referencing’, and we totally support Professor Wolf’s recognition that assessment of vocational qualifications by examinations is not appropriate. Our concern is that there has been a tendency in the past for ‘general principles’ to be quickly translated into regulatory or pseudo-regulatory criteria with all the resultant bureaucracy. Before we know it, the technical criteria becomes more and more convoluted and once again qualifications are designed to meet the criteria not the needs of the learners.

Returning to Maths and English GCSEs, we all have to accept that young people are not well served by an education system where the achievement rates for Grade C and above stubbornly hover around 50%. However the fact that the report also points out that only 4% achieve this goal by the time they are 18 also tells a story. Part of the tale is that many colleges no longer offer GCSE retakes as their experience is that the chances of learners improving their grades are not high and the time devoted to this dispiriting activity is better used towards positive achievement in some other area. Increasingly functional skills are meeting the bill and the fact that the current model has created some problems for work-based learners should not detract from the fact that they are proving suitable for full-time students.

The Federation will fall into line to say that we are pleased to see Professor Wolf’s observation that although the number of awarding bodies ”has been regarded, repeatedly, as a problem, but there is no intrinsic reason for it to be so”. This and the statement that she knows “of no empirical evidence to indicate that employers, in the past, had any trouble understanding and evaluating the vocational qualifications specific to their sector”, supports our own intelligence and it is pleasing to have the company of such an eminent academic in this view. And finally let’s say that the Federation is pleased that the ‘powers that be’ have spent time and money looking in depth at vocational education and recognising that it is an important part of young peoples’ education. There does seem to be a genuine desire on the part of Ministers and Professor Wolf to be our friends and to allow vocational qualifications to play a key role in our education and training – let’s make sure that we do not lose this as the Wolf report recommendations are considered and weighed by civil servants and Ministers.

Jill Lanning is chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB)

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