How to get vocational education right

8th April 2016 at 01:00
Give your pupils greater choice by providing a broad and balanced offering

Vocational education has changed dramatically in the past few years. Rigorous courses that prepare pupils for a wide range of careers are available for study in a range of qualifications that can be completed in mainstream schools in England.

And yet, predominantly because of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBac), mainstream schools may be tempted to scale back their vocational provision. Our school is proof that you don’t have to. Here’s our guide to getting your vocational offering right.

Choose the right courses

There may not be the 3,175 courses eligible for inclusion in school performance tables that there were back in 2011, but there is still a bewildering array of courses available. It is important to determine which options best fit the needs of your pupils.

Key considerations include the number of guided learning hours, the form of assessment (which varies considerably) and the nature of the course content itself.

The Department for Education’s “discounting codes” – designed to ensure that qualifications with an overlap in curriculum are given credit only once in performance tables – are useful for determining which courses have significant content overlap with ones you already run.

You’ll need to decide whether your options process will offer specific courses or invite pupils to enter into broader disciplines. For example, within performing arts, some pupils might be more suited to a vocational experience in, say, NCFE’s performance skills certificate, as opposed to a traditional GCSE in drama.

You might also want to consider sharing the delivery of some courses across the curriculum. In fact, many vocational courses can have a positive impact on the core provision.

Embrace innovation

In the new GCSEs, assessment in most subjects will be by exam only – in order, exams watchdog Ofqual says, to reduce disruption to teaching and learning. This oversimplification of assessment can, at times, be a barrier to progression. But vocational courses are free from these constraints and can be innovative in their assessment methods.

A group of our health and social care pupils recently designed, cooked and evaluated meals considering the needs of individuals with specific dietary conditions. They had to purchase ingredients, make calculations relating to nutritional value and undertake the hygienic and safe preparation of food. As part of the process, they had to keep a detailed log and use a range of multimedia to document their progress. This type of assessment was more meaningful and tangible than completing a paper in an exam hall. A high-quality and vocational experience of assessment such as this can inspire pupils to consider higher education and rewarding employment.

The innovation in assessment in vocational courses also means that they can be valuable for a broad range of learners with different strengths and skills, and still enable progression to rigorous level 3 qualifications that have parity with A levels and are fully recognised by employers.

Smash the stereotypes

Take the time to promote courses and challenge the prevailing myths about vocational study. One of the most common stereotypes is that pupils in vocational education are non-academic and that courses need to provide predominantly “practical” training.

In reality, technical qualifications can be a licence to practise or can exempt someone holding the qualification from a professional exam. In other cases, such as in financial education, they can provide a route to university.

Explain grading systems

The grading of vocational qualifications can seem confusing at first. Clear explanations aid both pupil and parent understanding of the equivalence that vocational qualifications hold with more traditional subjects.

Parents especially find it illuminating when told that a level 2 distinction* has parity with a GCSE A* grade. Understanding of the grade structure goes a long way towards shattering any perception that the courses are either an easy option or of less value.

Keep track of progress

Schools that can tightly track the progress of their pupils are well placed to gain the most from these qualifications. Typically, courses are divided into four parts with only one being externally assessed. However, it should be noted that there are tight constraints on the level of help that can be provided.

Schools should revisit the JCQ’s instructions for conducting coursework, and examine guidance from the relevant exam board. Also note that the value of the external component is set to rise to 40 per cent in 2018.

Get the exams right

We would recommend that your school delivers the same exam preparation schedule as for EBac subjects. For example, for pupils sitting January exams in Cambridge Nationals subjects we found that three-hour revision sessions, followed by pre-public exams in December, were highly informative in diagnostic terms while also giving pupils valuable experience. Additionally, 20-minute sessions immediately prior to the exam helped to calm pupils’ nerves and remind them of vital exam technique.

Monitor your impact

RAISEonline’s new inspection dashboard will measure the impact of vocational subjects on the “open group” of the Progress 8 performance measure, but the impact of vocational subjects can’t be measured with stats alone. Qualitative measures can be illuminating, with case studies of pupils’ vocational experiences providing a valuable tool for ascertaining the quality of your provision.

We should not underestimate the value of the passionate understanding and technical accomplishments that vocational courses can bring to pupils. Vocational learning needs not be seen as the poor relation of academic learning, but rather a valuable part of a broad and balanced education.

Nigel Matthias (@matthiasenglish) is deputy headteacher and Seb Spall (@sebspall1) is senior leader for vocational education at Bay House School and Sixth Form in Gosport, Hampshire

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