What I Learned From Writing About Vocational Education

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.

8 thoughts on “What I Learned From Writing About Vocational Education

  1. Schools and colleges need to align their principles with your last para. Every sixth former of mine has to support some form of vocational leadership programme, be that in childcare, play worker or sports leader. A significant majority are engaged in DofE award not because it looks good but because it adds skills and challenge. I accept we don’t have other practical nvqs but since art, technology, drama an music A levels are open to all interested, we have those bases covered. Ict competencies are achieved through school wide adoption of cloud based learning with Google apps for edu. We are a day school but most play sport 3 days or more a week. It isn’t that hard to envision an inclusive approach to academic provision but you had to hardwire in a sense of fairness and be brave when league tables come out.

    1. Couldn’t agree more James, it wouldn’t take much to incorporate these wider interests but we just don’t seem to have the will to do it. But that we had Tomlinsoned!

  2. The problem is that those pesky teens like to make choices for themselves, and we all know that they (but heavens knows, not we) often make choices based on social pressures, misunderstandings of the way the world works, and sometimes just pure laziness. When we force people of this age to take the courses that adults think they should, the students often resist either by dropping out (if that is an option) or be staging passive resistance “sit-ins” – sitting in class but not engaging, and thereby, leaving without qualifications. A focus on offering more life-long learning opportunities so that people can approach new types of learning when they are ready reframes the problem and allows young people to make choices that don’t have to limit their social mobility in the long term.

    I also agree that we should be offering vocational, work-based pathways to more “high status” careers in medicine, business, education and other fields that truly are vocations, and therefore, vocational.

    1. You’re absolutely right that Lifelong Learning becomes important here. One of the most frustrating things for me when looking at current work policies extending retirement age is that we don’t seem to have realised that if we want people to have careers spanning fifty years, the idea that we just educate them for 10 years near the beginning is increasingly not going to cut it.

  3. I subscribe to your dream too, Laura, but I think we need an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, stop thinking in these stupid ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ terms and think about learning and education in the round.

    Having lived with a building surveyor for 18 years, I’ve discovered that my general arty interest in architecture has expanded into a fascination for building pathology (why does it fall down?). My narrow, academic ‘education’ would never have helped me to discover this in a million years.

    Conversely, my partner got into it because he wasn’t academic, failed everything at school and took up technical drawing at college. At the age of 40-odd, he gained a first class hons degree (part time) and chartered status. The education system had failed him, although you might argue that he was just one of those people who needed to find his own way in his own time.

    My dream is that the system helps young people discover their talents as well as ensuring they’ve got the basic skills we all need. We’ve all been shoehorned in some way, even those of us who have been relatively successful. What might have been??

  4. You’ve just about summed it up. We don’t have enough evidence to make firm decisions. Also we have to accept that education isn’t the only factor in social mobility. Finally many trades are well paid, certainly many tradesman will be as well paid as teachers.

    The problem with vocational education is that competing exam boards have dumbed down the qual’s. During the previous Labour government you could get to University without any external assessment.

    Gove and Wilshaw’s rhetoric (particularly Gove) is out of sync with the reality of modern marketplaces and jobs that were traditionally poorly paid are now relatively well paid.

    You are right but unfortunately the education system is so poor that we are light years away from a genuinely responsive curriculum.

    But more than that I wonder whether the broader question is whether society values the right skills and whether the vagaries of the market place rewards appropriately.

    This I agree with but I think these days we are now walking a road less travelled:

    “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.”

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