The Vocational Education Trade-Off

Some opponents to vocational education suggest that tracking students into vocational pathways early in school life increases educational inequality. Are they correct? Yes. At least according to a new study by Bol & Van de Werfhorst.

What did they do to find this out?

Using the data for 29 countries (including the UK) the researchers scored each country on three things:

  • Level of ‘tracking’ (or setting) – This score included the age at which students are first selected academically/vocationally, what % of the curriculum was selected, and the number of different pathways
  • The level of ‘vocational enrollment’ – This score was based on the % of students doing vocational studies in upper secondary school, and
  • Level of vocational course ‘specificity’ – i.e. did courses include work experience, were they highly job-specific in their content etc. 

The researchers then looked for correlations between these three variables and of certain ‘outcomes’ which included:

  • Youth unemployment as a ratio of adult employment, and
  • Average length of job search
  • Inequality of PISA scores in the country
  • Educational attainment adjusted for social origin

What did they find?

The first three findings showed the benefits of vocational education

#1 – academic setting has no effect on the youth/adult employment ratio. Putting students with others of an equal ability doesn’t influence employment likelihood.

#2 – where vocational education is work specific it reduces youth unemployment. If you train people to do specific jobs, they go on and do them.

#3 – young people spend less time looking for jobs in countries with higher levels of vocational enrollment. So, the more vocational education available the less the amount of time young people spend casting about for work.

The next three findings show the problems of the academic selection that occurs in countries with strong systems of vocational education

#4 – In a more tracked (or ‘set’) educational system, where lower ability students are ‘tracked’ into vocational classes, variation in student performance across all subjects is more strongly based on social class background. 

#5 – Academic tracking enhances the importance of social origin for reading performance. I.e., in countries with setting, social origin increasingly appears related to reading performance. 

#6 – In more tracked (‘set’) educational systems, social background is a stronger determinant for an individual’s opportunities in school than in non-set 

HOWEVER – it is very important here to note that what appears to be causing the problem is setting and not the vocational element. The trade-off appears to be that when countries ‘academically select’ certain people to go down an academic route and give others a vocational one there is then an inequality.

HERE’S A THOUGHT: Why can’t academic and vocational studies both be available to anyone of any calibre? What would happen if you simply said that there were no entry requirements for any subject at GCSE, and that all subjects were GCSE/A-Levels, even if they were ‘vocational’ – what would happen then?

It seems to me that you would then get people selecting by interest, and getting the skills required for the workplace, but you wouldn’t get the downside of the inequality and social class tracking. Or am I missing something here?!