Our vocational success needs a Wolf whistle

22nd October 2010 at 01:00

How do we greet the news of another educational review? Announced by Michael Gove in his Edge lecture last month, the Wolf review, chaired by Professor Alison Wolf of King's College London, is to take stock of the vocational landscape, ensuring its growth sits naturally with academic study, as opposed to clashing with it. But the review must avoid becoming another political football. Rather, it is a chance to bring lasting, positive change.

The need for reform stems from a backdrop of problems around choice and progression in education. The number of students leaving school and not going on to further education is ever increasing. The review, though, should not be seen as a knee-jerk reaction. UK plc needs high-quality technicians and education must respond. Vocational learning is gradually overcoming social and economic snobbery, and is no longer the fallback for those disillusioned by traditional academia. It is now a key option for a rounded education.

This shift is changing the learning landscape, and it is time these changes were cemented in place and given sturdy foundations to build on. This is where Wolf fits in - by ensuring that vocational learning provides quality across the board.

At Edge, we hope the review will emphasise several key areas to attain this. Firstly, the need for high-quality facilities. Buildings and equipment need to be up to professional standards, helping breed familiarity and creating a bridge between learning and working. We can't teach people on typewriters if they are to work on computers.

Equally crucial is quality teaching. Mr Gove has been vocal about his desire to have minimum standards for traditional teaching, and vocational learning needs to mirror this. While the benchmarks will be different, the review needs to implement standards by which vocational teaching can be judged.

High-quality technical education is a blend of theory and practice that lets students keep their options open while pursuing interests in depth. It is vital the review recognises this, bringing the best out of the combination. We believe this is achievable. The medical profession provides a bench mark: theory and practice taught in professional facilities, by experienced doctors with students frequently encountering the working conditions they will progress to. All vocational education must match this rather than chase league table positions by pseudo- vocational lessons taught by school teachers in general classrooms.

The good news is that across major towns and cities of the UK, the infrastructure for change is coming to fruition. University technical colleges (UTCs), the brainchild of Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing, represent a new concept which embodies many qualities the review must embrace.

UTCs offer 14- to 19-year-olds the opportunity to take a highly regarded, technical course of study at a specialist college equipped to the highest standards. The colleges are sponsored by a university, with clear progression routes into higher education or further learning in work. The college ethos and curriculum of each is heavily influenced by employers, who also provide support and work experience for students.

The JCB Academy in Staffordshire was the first UTC to open in September. The fact that it was immediately oversubscribed and has gained support from major employers such as Toyota and Rolls-Royce suggests parents, students and employers recognize the need for these. More are to follow in Aston, Walsall and at least 12 other sites.

This is the context in which the review must operate. An infrastructure is emerging, and it is my hope that Wolf can build on it. Through wise choices the review can deliver a clear path to creating quality courses and qualifications trusted by employers, universities and teachers, which will ensure young people have many paths to success.

Peter Mitchell is education director of Edge, an educational foundation.

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