From education to employment

It’s time vocational education got a makeover

Shockingly the first month of the New Year is already over. People have been dieting and hitting the gym to shed those excess winter pounds, heads already filled with thoughts of impending summer holidays. The Christmas sales are finally over and the shops preparing for Easter! So as everyone else is focussing on the future and overhauling their images isn’t it about time that the vocational education sector did the same?

We all know that we have an image problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Only a week ago Tristram Hunt MP stood up at the BETT Conference to tell delegates that “Tired old snobberies” and views associated with vocational education were holding back the UK’s potential to succeed in the digital economy. And it’s not just the digital economy that’s being held back – its pan industry. We’re all far too familiar with the stories of skills shortages in every sector from engineering through to hospitality.

The problem is that for decades successive governments have been spreading the message far and wide that university is the best possible option for learners, as well as for industry, at the expense of all other options and this has left us with a dangerously unbalanced workforce. The short-sightedness of this attitude has now become clear and government have recognised the urgent need to properly invest in vocational education to begin to meet the skills needs of the country. Yet despite this positive step forward in the last week alone we’ve seen irrefutable evidence the huge bias towards academic education still exists. It is endemic in our education policy making as well as our Government.

When the school league tables were released last week we saw that thousands of technical qualifications will no longer be counted after being branded as ‘poor quality’. It goes without saying that this will discourage even more schools from guiding learners down the vocational route and really highlights the fact that vocational qualifications are still very much viewed as a second class option by those in power. This coupled with the total lack of independent careers advice available to young people means that they aren’t getting the information they deserve to enable them to make informed choices about their futures.

It was also interesting to see how this information was reported in the press. The broadsheets ran with stories about the demise of the international GCSEs and how this would affect private schools whilst only a few of the red tops picked up the fact that vocational education had been dealt another blow. So it looks like Mr Hunt had a pretty good point – those “tired old snobberies” are unfortunately still alive and kicking across the country.

So what is the answer? Well we need to do what we do best. We need to ‘educate’ and inform. Not just the students but we also need to engage with MPs, parents, schools and young people so that everyone truly understands that a vocational education can also be a very effective route to a rewarding career with aspirational fulfilment and social mobility.

We should make a collective (albeit belated) New Year’s resolution to shout from the rooftops about what is so great about a vocational education. It provides businesses large and small up-and-down the country with the skilled people they need to help their organisations flourish so the knock on effect is that vocational skills help the whole economy to grow. We should also continue to lobby Government to provide a sustainable system that doesn’t constantly tinker with the vocational offering across schools and FE. We need to make it clear that we need more integrated approaches that recognise the value of vocational education through league table measurements.

2015 is set to be a really seminal year for the FE sector with an election looming in May and skills-based education high on the agenda along with Apprenticeship reform. So as a sector let’s take advantage of the spotlight that’s currently shining on us by challenging those ‘tired old snobberies’ whenever we hear them and continuing to provide the evidence needed to ensure vocational education gets the recognition it deserves as an integrated part of the full education eco system.

Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of training body City & Guilds Group

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