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It's back to the '80s for many of our jobless young. But our pupils deserve better - and I'm proposing how

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 4 March, 2011 | By: Alison Wolf

I first got involved in vocational education way back in the last big recession. Unemployment had soared, apprenticeships were vanishing, and the government of the day was desperately trying to get its "youth training scheme" for 16 and 17-year-olds up and running.

Now, after the recovery of the 1990s and the boom of the Blair years, we have come full circle. England today has high and rising youth unemployment. And once again it is the young who have taken the brunt of the recession. Are we doing any better a job for our teenagers than we did a generation ago?

Back in the '80s, I was angry that we were getting things expensively wrong. The young people who were steered on to training schemes had such reasonable aspirations: a job, a family, their own home. They hoped their training might help, but they didn't actually expect it to. And we know now that they were right to be sceptical. Being "on YTS" did nothing whatsoever for them.

Today, far more 16 to 18-year-olds are in full-time education, and far more young people, from 14 onwards, are doing vocational courses in schools, as well as colleges. Are we giving them the skills they need for the moment the economy turns around? Or are we still letting many of them down?

As higher education has expanded, so too have the numbers and proportions who progress to degrees via a vocational route. And apprenticeship numbers have grown after years of decay and government neglect.

But in my report to education secretary Michael Gove, published yesterday, I also show that for many young people the situation is no better than it was in the 1980s. We have a system which rewards schools and colleges for piling up qualification numbers, regardless of quality. Too many of those qualifications are demonstrably valueless in the labour market. Far too many students are following programmes in which such qualifications play a major role. And far too many students leave school or college without good maths and English GCSEs.

Maths and English are the most important single qualifications for progression in education and in the labour market. Employers use them as a way of sifting and selecting. Top apprenticeships demand at least a C as a matter of course and so do universities. I was therefore shocked to discover just how few students pass maths or English GCSE in the sixth-form. Less than half our young people have good maths and English at the end of Year 11. Two years later, at the end of Year 13, it is still less than half.

Teaching mathematics and one's own language through to 18 has been completely standard in other developed countries for decades. And they believe in a strong common core up to 16, including science and foreign languages; specialisation and apprenticeship only come later. I have recommended changes to funding and programmes which would ensure that maths and English are included and taught properly to anyone without A*-C GCSEs. But we also need to tackle the wider perverse incentives in our system.

Accountability and funding have been tied to qualification numbers. Schools have been judged on key stage 4 league tables where "points" are added up using a huge range of qualifications. And post-16, funding has been on the basis of qualifications taught and passed. Obviously everyone then has a strong incentive to enter students for qualifications they will pass easily.

Submissions to the review frequently expressed concerns about the attainment of students leaving KS4 with huge numbers of GCSEs from "equivalent" qualifications. These students expected to be able to start courses for which they were actually unprepared. It is quite wrong for 16-year-olds to end up in this situation. Worse, we know from repeated research studies that many low-level vocational qualifications have negligible value in the workplace. We are effectively putting 14 and 16-year-olds on different tracks without telling them, or even admitting it to ourselves. It is immoral to operate a school system on these lines.

There are some truly excellent vocational qualifications on offer. My report is clear that they need to be recognised as such, publicised and included clearly in performance measures; and that students should be encouraged to take them with, but not instead of, a common core of the sort that all our European countries offer.

Meanwhile, we should stop pretending that all qualifications are equal. No one is fooled. But students and families who are not experts on the current system can be badly damaged. And I have recommended changes which should change the situation post-16.

First, by giving more students access to really high-quality vocational resources and teaching; and far more of them proper workplace internships. Second, by making it easier for colleges to enrol students and much easier for schools to use qualified vocational teachers and professionals in their classrooms. Third, by changing the funding system so money is tied to students, not individual qualifications. This would allow schools and colleges to offer a more rounded curriculum and make it much easier for schools and colleges to collaborate in innovative ways.

Education cannot change the economy all on its own. But, come the next recession, we can and should have done better by its teenage victims than we did in the 1980s or are doing today.

Professor Alison Wolf led the Wolf review of vocational education, published yesterday, and is director of public services policy and management at King's College London.

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Comment (3)

  • Surely the problem is lack of jobs

    Having served an apprenticeship in the 1970's I witnessed the butchering of the manufacturing sector in this country first hand. The traditional heavy industries (coal, steel, shipbuilding) were destroyed for political reasons without any real concern for the devastation this would cause to the other industries that relied on them and the communities based on these industries.

    We then moved from a 'this is what you need to know' approach to education to a 'what would you like to know' approach. Sadly, children do not know what they will need in the future and need to be guided by adults.

    The erosion of the idea that experience should earn you respect now leads to teachers having to earn respect in the eyes of their students by adopting more of the students (childish) values. The whole concept of allowing children to feel that the statement "I will only give respect to people who respect me" has value is frankly ridiculous - yet this idea is one of the many 'elephants in the room' that are studiously ignored by many 'educationalists'.

    Sadly, I teach many children who are virtually 'unemployable' because they have been brought up in a system that has demonstrated that an opinion without any valid support is as viable as an opinion backed up by evidence.

    Many of these students are given vocational opportunities that fail because the behavioural demands of the courses do not firtt in with the child's view of what they want to do.

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    5 March, 2011


  • Quote: 'Sadly, I teach many children who are virtually 'unemployable' because they have been brought up in a system that has demonstrated that an opinion without any valid support is as viable as an opinion backed up by evidence.'

    The trouble with that point of view is that there is nothing new to this 'opinion without any valid support is as viable as an opinion backed up by evidence'; religion has pushed this line for thousands of years.

    The 1980's Thatcher political war on traditional heavy industry has left working class people in need of MORE education in order to obtain any form of employment. In fear of this the middle-classes have accelerated an education arms race leaving many poorer kids well behind. This has never been adequately addressed; but currently blaming the working classes for being born near the Thatcher era seems the only response from government.

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    6 March, 2011

    Brooke Bond

  • Trying to get ALL students to gain higher levels of qualification does nothing except de-value those who would have already gained high levels of attainment. 'levelling the field' makes a dwindling job market more competitive, not less, and the empty promises of "well, if you concentrate on English and Maths you're far more likely to get employment" disenfranchise yet another generation.
    By raising the outcomes for all, all employers do is to raise the bar for all levels of jobs - we still need people to do all sorts of jobs in the UK, and if we make pupils feel that they are 'too good' for some of the more 'menial' (but equally very important to the running of the country) jobs, then we leave a vacuum that will logically be filled by other workers, who are happy to do any job that pays them, whilst we leave our young people too aspirational to want jobs they are actually capable of, and not qualified enough for the ones that they are told they should expect.
    If the government continues on it's current trajectory we will undoubtedly see rising levels of disillusionment, high unemployment, and with a shrinking economy (because someone thought it was a good idea to cut your way out of a recession - like that ever worked) fewer and fewer prospects of growth. Make way for rising crime levels, house repossessions, further disengagement with education (as another generation feels 'failed' by schools - who are told what to do by the governement), and lower numbers of people who are keen and motivated to become teachers... but that's ok, because with tighter funding we have to make teacher redundant anyway and teach to larger class sizes - that will help raise attainment!
    Isn't it time the government took the decision to de-politicise education (like the MPC model) and allow educational professionals to set up long-term goals and processes that ACTUALLY benefit young people, rather than lurching from one government's idea of 'good education' (that actually only serves their own short-term political goals) to another? When will we be free from this incessant tinkering? A child takes between 11 and 16 years to complete their education - they could have seen four governments in this time, and have been told four times that the path they have chosen is 'valueless' (and implicitly that so are they as individuals) - how does this help to build the 'big society'? or competitiveness with our european neighbours?

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    17 May, 2011


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