In last month’s Guardian column I wrote about the dilemma facing policymakers deciding how students should progress down ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ routes to qualification.
The problem seems to be that the earlier you ‘track’ students into vocational routes the more likely you are to reduce social mobility. In England this is because students most likely to take vocational subjects are those from lower income backgrounds, and because the jobs gained at the end of a vocational route often pay less well than those from an academic route, then you end up with lower income students remaining in lower income jobs.
However, if you keep students in ‘academic’ routes for a longer period of time, and some students don’t achieve well within this sphere, and so drop out of school without any qualification then youth unemployment rates go up.
So, increase vocational routes and the country will get lower unemployment but also lower social mobility. Hmm…What to do?
Whilebelow-the-line comments were a bit sparse, several people engaged in debate via twitter and email.
Daniel Acquah, a research associate at AQA, pointed out that vocational education too often acts as a ‘safety net’. Vocational subjects are forced to take any student who is struggling because otherwise what will they doooo? Only, if vocational subjects are seen as ‘what the struggling kids do’ then this is what devalues them.
If we truly want to ‘raise the status’ of vocational education (something every politician says, but no one ever manages) then we need first to solve the problem of what to do with students under-performing in core academic subjects. (A matter I tackled previously here).
Organisations like the London School of Business and Finance also pointed out that there are ways of combining ‘graduate style’ jobs with vocational style training. For example, LSBF offer ‘Higher National Diplomas’, which are considered ‘vocational’ because the qualifications offered are specifically related to an industry – e.g. accountancy certification exams – and don’t rely on individuals having the sort of entry qualifications needed to get into university, but they open ‘professional’ pathways to students who might not otherwise have had chance.
Finally, the Edge Foundation, a group promoting vocational education, shared some of their most recent research which disputes that academic graduates will earn significantly more over their lifetime. For example, the average construction apprentice is expected to earn £1.5m over their lifetime, a graduate £1.6m. The £100k difference is still a fair amount, but not quite the gap that many people expect.
Skip to the end: The problem of vocational education seems to come down to the fact that (a) we don’t really have a plan for students who are not achieving well in core subjects other than go work with your hands, and (b) we seem to have become obsessed with the notion that vocational jobs either pay poorly or no one would want to do them – but this isn’t necessarily true.
For me the dream is still that all students would experience a broad range of subjects up to 18, with equal encouragement across all fields – technical, practical, artistic, academic. School is one of the few chances we have in life to see what we might like to do. It seems such a shame to limit it.