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.