Simple and consistent should be our bywords

19th December 2014 at 00:00
As the participation age is raised, we must follow the example of the Netherlands and take a coherent approach to 14-19 education

The year 2015 will be one of change and anticipation. Not just as we wait to see who the education secretary and prime minister will be after the general election but also because all young people in England will be required to participate in education or training until the age of 18.

No one can accuse the government of neglecting 14- to 19-year-olds when it comes to policy initiatives. Although former education secretary Michael Gove was quick to move away from the previous government's flagship Diplomas, he instigated a flurry of policies affecting this age group: the Wolf review of vocational education and the Richard review of apprenticeships, the reform of GCSEs and A-levels, and the funding of university technical colleges and studio schools, to name just a few.

A lot has changed and many important outcomes - such as the number of young people not in education, employment or training (Neet) - have shown signs of improvement. It remains clear, however, that England's performance is still lagging behind similar countries such as the Netherlands and Australia. Neet rates in these countries were, at the last count, 2.4 per cent and 7.2 per cent respectively, compared with England's rate of 9.5 per cent. And despite a lot of policy changes affecting 18-year-olds, it is questionable whether the government has thought holistically about whether and how to make the rise in the participation age truly successful.

Last week the Institute for Public Policy Research, where I work, published a report entitled Avoiding the Same Old Mistakes: lessons for reform of 14-19 education in England, which sets out several lessons that we think should guide our work and any future policy or reform in this area.

The first lesson is one that I expect will be music to the ears of many teachers, lecturers and college leaders. The plea we make is that any future policy thinking on 14-19 education must not start by prioritising yet another round of qualification reform. It is much easier for politicians to pursue qualification reform, which very much remains within the control of the state, than it is to stand back and address thorny but important issues, such as how we reach the correct balance between national and local power and between different sectors.

The other lessons captured in the report were inspired by the relative successes of countries such as the Netherlands, which has a very similar economy and background to ours but which seems to be doing a better job of engaging young people, particularly through its reformed vocational education system.

Streamlining, structuring, strengthening

While visiting the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago, I saw for myself the result of the effort that has been put into streamlining, structuring and strengthening its vocational education system, particularly over the past 20 years. The element of the system that Dutch principals and policymakers were most keen to promote was the coherent vocational offer.

There the apprenticeship route is interchangeable with the vocational college-based route, so that, whether a young person spends more time in a college or in work-based setting, they end up with the same diploma and the knowledge needed to move on to further study or work. Such an approach was especially helpful during the recession, as young people could continue to be trained to identical standards ready for when the labour market picked up and more apprenticeship opportunities became available. The lesson for me was that, as good as it is to focus on apprenticeships, we must not forget the importance of a strong college- or school-based vocational route.

The Netherlands also has meaningful employer engagement. Calls for employers to engage in education are hardly new, nor is it a principle that is easy to dispute, but in England that engagement still does not take place consistently or effectively. Over the past few years, attempts have been made to involve employers in the design of standards and the provision of skills, through mechanisms such as apprenticeship "trailblazers", local enterprise partnerships and the requirement for a minimum of five employers to sign off Tech Levels.

Although trying to involve employers in this way is admirable, it is striking in the Netherlands how successful simple, clear structures (currently in the form of "knowledge centres") are in involving employers and balancing business and educational interests. Such simplicity and consistency, while not easy to implement, is something we should strive for in England.

Of course, not everything in the Netherlands is perfect. The knowledge centres are about to be subjected to severe funding cuts resulting in a much more centralised, slimmed-down structure. People I met seemed hopeful that this change would lead only to increased efficiency, but I remain more sceptical.

However, a warning light in my head flashed up the question of whether the principles of strategy, simplicity and coherence behind the successful Dutch reforms are being applied in England. A systemic approach to the 14-19 phase and all the recent reforms seems even more important in a year when such a significant change in our educational landscape is about to come into force. There is no more "parity of esteem" between academic and vocational education in the Netherlands than there is ever likely to be in England. But the focus in the Netherlands has rightly been not on striving for parity but on improving the component parts of the education system and delivering something that is coherent and effective.

Louise Evans is a senior research fellow in education at the Institute for Public Policy Research


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