Prejudice not parity
Vocational learning is still hamstrung by academic prejudices and entrenched attitudes, according to a report by Edinburgh University researchers which was commissioned by the Scottish Government.
Following an extensive trawl of the literature, they have concluded that the overwhelming evidence suggests "parity of esteem between vocational and academic education has not been achieved".
This follows the report on Scottish schools by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which declared that vocational education and training in schools was "the single most important avenue for creating incentives and raising achievement".
Yet the Edinburgh University report, by Sheila Edward, Elizabet Weedon and Sheila Riddell from its centre for research in education, inclusion and diversity, said that class and gender continue to play a critical part in decisions young people make about whether to take up vocational learning opportunities. They note that:
- there is a lower uptake of vocational subjects than academic ones;
- there are more younger males (14-18) studying in FE colleges than young women;
- more women than men over 18 attend college and university;
- males and females are still linked to particular subject choices at Standard grade, Higher and in modern apprenticeships; only 3 per cent of those on construction Skills for Work courses are female;
- students from more deprived backgrounds tend to take lower-level qualifications and more vocationally-oriented subjects.
The recent evaluation of the flagship Skills for Work courses found "virtually no evidence that schools were using SfW courses specifically for disengaged or problem students, especially in the second year of the pilot, although some colleges felt that higher-ability students were often dissuaded from participation in courses".
The attitude of schools was seen as a key influence - but not necessarily an even-handed one, as an HMIE report last year on engineering courses in FE colleges stated: "A common view was that school guidance staff had not told (pupils) much about modern apprenticeships, although some learners had received general advice to `get a trade'.
"Learners often felt that they received more information in school about the qualifications needed for university entrance than about vocational opportunities in colleges."
The researchers confirmed that parents were also a significant influence on which career options their children chose. The Edge Foundation, a charitable and campaigning organisation which has been behind high-profile TV commercials aimed at reducing parental prejudice against vocational learning, states: "One in five young people think they have been led down the wrong educational path, with almost half being misdirected by their own parents . many parents are influenced by ingrained prejudices against vocational qualifications - with 35 per cent believing that vocational learning is for people who don't do well at school."
Despite the high profile given to vocational learning and the gradual improvements in attitudes towards it, the Edinburgh researchers point out that many studies which paint a positive picture tend to be based on the views of students, lecturers and managers who are taking part. They found no research which had "taken the temperature" of secondary teachers or pupils as a whole. This was important because "the attitudes of teachers of non-vocational subjects are likely to play an important part in pupils' decisions," they write.
The report calls for more research into the attitudes of young people towards vocational learning, particularly those in strongly academic Scottish schools.