Don't forget the good amid the bad and ugly

18th March 2011 at 00:00

So far, most of the reaction to Alison Wolf's review of 14-19 vocational education has focused on its condemnation of low-level vocational qualifications and the fact that less than 50 per cent of 19- year-olds achieve the all-important benchmark of A*-C GCSEs in maths and English.

In exposing these weaknesses in England's system, Professor Wolf makes a powerful argument for improving the general educational attainment of many more young people. Yet the review has surprisingly little to say about how we might build on the good-quality vocational education that does exist.

Professor Wolf rightly argues that providers of vocational education should be funded for the programmes of learning that young people take, rather than individual qualifications, but the report stops short of envisaging what these programmes might look like and who would design them. Professor Wolf argues that employers are the best judges of quality, but we know that in vocational systems in other European countries these judgments are based on partnerships between employers, educationalists, government and unions.

There is a problematic tension at the heart of the report. More freedoms are advocated for schools, colleges and training providers to offer the qualifications they want, subject to these being from approved bodies. Students should be able to choose the programme they take, with the funding following the student.

However, it is not clear how these freedoms will ensure or improve quality and consistency of provision, with doubts about the "programmes" and how young people will be supported. Without a vision of what counts as good- quality vocational education, how will students, their families and society in general know that a high-quality publicly funded system has been achieved?

The review rightly recognises the importance of apprenticeships for young people and the extremely high demand for the "best" apprenticeships. Yet it has nothing to say about the continued variability of quality within apprenticeships.

As we know from our extensive research on apprenticeships over the past 20 years, two apprentices with the same background attainment and ostensibly following the same apprenticeship framework can have a vastly different quality of experience. The "X factor" is the capacity and commitment of the employer to train and support the apprentice. Also, the qualifications that apprentices gain vary wildly from sector to sector.

The review makes the important point that the state should subsidise employers to encourage more to take on young people as apprentices. But without clarity and transparency about what constitutes a good-quality apprenticeship, the risk is that payments will go to the poor as well as the excellent employers, and that young people will assume that any apprenticeship is a good option for them.

Finally, there is a hole in the Wolf review that exposes the vulnerability of vocational education's position in relation to policy-making. The review was commissioned and launched by the Department for Education, despite the fact that most of the problems that vocational education has to address all fall under the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We need a public debate that involves both departments in discussions of how we might build on the best of our existing provision, not only to improve individuals' life chances but also to support a strategy for industry and growth.

Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin are professors at the LLAKES Centre at Southampton University's Institute of Education.

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