Michael Gove's foreword to the Review of Vocational Education (The Wolf Report) starts by saying:
Since Prince Albert established the Royal Commission in 1851 policy-makers have struggled with our failure to provide young people with a proper technical and practical education of a kind that other nations can boast. 160 years later the same problems remain. Our international competitors boast more robust manufacturing industries. Our technical education remains weaker than most other developed nations. And, in simple terms, our capacity to generate growth by making things remains weaker.
The Wolf Report confirms the view that vocational education for 14-19 year olds in England is not good enough and supports the idea that the country could learn from approaches employed by other nations, particularly where apprenticeships are concerned.
In September 2010 Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at King's College London, was asked to conduct an independent review into vocational education in England. A call for evidence was released later in that month and the review reported back on 3 March 2011. The report is highly critical of many aspects of vocational education and makes 27 recommendations for its improvement.
So how good is the education we are providing for these young people, and for their, and our, future? Good only in parts; which is to say, not good enough.
There are approximately 2.5m young people in England aged 14 to 19. Most young people now take at least some form of vocation education; post-GCSE two-thirds take a route that does not consist solely of A levels. The report states that, even using the most conservative interpretations, at least one in five 16-18 years olds are getting very little benefit from post-16 secondary education, which means that, the system is "failing" at least 350,000 young people every year.
More young people are staying in education than had previously been the norm. In 1976 74% of 18 year olds were in full time employment or apprenticeships, falling to 60% in 1988 and 40% in 2009. Over the same time period, those in full time education or training rose from 17% in 1976, to 25% in 1998, and 45% in 2009. Evidence from the London School of Economics suggests that more young people are choosing to stay in school rather than find a job in an increasingly challenging employment market. Youth unemployment has been rising since the mid-2000s, but as more young people are choosing to stay in education the actual proportion of the age group considered to be unemployed has remained stable for many years. The report also highlights the concerns that employers have about recruiting young people at this time.
From an employer's viewpoint, when 70% of 16 and 17 year olds were in the labour market, he or she had a good chance of hiring a 'good' employee at that age. Now, the chance is perceived to be much lower – and so they prefer older applicants.
The report concludes that currently there is not a good fit between vocational education and the requirements of employers, and goes on to say that the amount of time and money currently spent on vocational education frequently cannot be justified. Level 1 and 2 vocational awards, including those level 2 qualifications classified as being equivalent to GCSE A*-C, were singled out for criticism as research has demonstrated particularly low and even negative returns.
Large numbers of young people are not on programmes which will help them to progress either educationally or in the labour market... At a time of rising youth unemployment across Europe, ever greater competitive pressures on our economy, and rising demands for formal qualifications, too many of our young people are being short-changed.
The funding mechanism and performance indicators were also criticised in the report for forcing colleges to encourage young people to take courses that they are likely to pass easily, rather than the courses that will be of any future benefit to the individual. The report also highlights concerns that school performance tables are resulting in a rise in vocational awards being taken by young people, without are regard for the individual's long-term interests.
The system of performance indicators which is currently being used to measure schools' performance at the end of Key Stage 4, has resulted in an enormous rise in the number of 'vocational' awards taken by young people. The speed with which numbers have grown, and the absence of any other explanation, make it clear that the reason has been to promote schools' league table performance... Young people are being entered for 'vocational' awards at the end of KS4 for reasons which have nothing to do with their own long-term interests, within education or the labour market.
Both the funding mechanism and performance indicators currently employed are, according to the report, leading to young people that complete KS4 without an A*-C in maths and English being denied the chance to continue studying these subjects.
No other developed country allows, let alone effectively encourages, its young people to neglect maths and their own language in this way.
The report recommends that the DfE clearly distinguishes between those qualifications that can count towards performance indicators and those that cannot. It says that performance indicators should not give schools incentives to divert young people on to courses that are not valued by employers or other education providers. It also recommends that young people in education who have not obtained GCSE A*-C in maths and/or English should be required to continue studying these subjects in whatever vocational course they choose to pursue.
Despite these serious concerns the report goes on to say that there is, "a great deal of excellent vocational education on offer". Apprenticeships were highlighted as providing high returns for young people, but that placements are increasingly going to adults rather than teenagers. It was also thought unlikely that the current apprenticeship model will expand substantially without changes. The report encourages the DfE and BIS to review the current apprenticeship arrangements and to consider best practice internationally. It also suggests that subsidies could be provided to employers when they help provide general education rather that specific skill training.
The report concludes by saying:
Vocational education already offers great benefits to many of our young people, and makes enormous contributions to the economy and to their lives. The recommendations of this Review are designed to extend these benefits, and offer better education and training, better prospects, and continued opportunities for progression to all English young people.