Pedagogy can oil the wheels of vocational education

23rd September 2016 at 01:00
The Sainsbury review is welcome, but we must go much further to truly meet learners’ needs

The recent Sainsbury review, suggesting ways of improving technical education, and the subsequent Post-16 Skills Plan, pack some good punches. UK productivity is lagging behind that of its competitors and Lord Sainsbury suggests some changes to the system that could improve matters. Making the technical route coherent by restating the twin employment and college-based routes makes sense. Decluttering the current landscape of qualifications to a sensible number of 15 core occupational areas is long overdue.

The idea of a common core of experiences aligned to apprenticeships at the start of any two-year college course is helpful. Thinking about a focus on occupation-specific English and maths is potentially interesting, although the issue of resitting a new GCSE examination is not fully developed. And the proposals for what a new, expanded Institute for Apprenticeships and a newish National Careers Service should do are just that, proposals.

Two cheers then. But am I alone in wanting to read something – anything in fact – about what actually goes on in technical education when it is working well? Why is the whole focus of both reports on structures, systems and organisations and not on pedagogy, teaching methods or advances in the learning sciences? Why are the issues of workforce capability in delivering employment or college-based learning and high-quality careers advice and guidance to schools glossed over?

Why does the language of, for example, “technical education”, “knowledge, skills and behaviours” and “short, flexible, bridging provision” seem, on the one hand, old-fashioned and, on the other, slightly defensive? What is the evidence for sifting young people so starkly at age 16?

The Sainsbury report and Skills Plan seek to improve the system, yet make no mention of the kinds of issues that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified as being of critical importance. For example: the best blend of specific and transferable skills and capabilities to ensure occupational mobility and lifelong learning; the implications for pedagogy for developing these capabilities; the kinds of pedagogical professional development needed for college, provider or employer-based teachers and trainers; the nature of effective workplace learning and so forth.

The dignity of an occupation

In our recent research, we identified a rich blend of learning methods that lead to high-quality outcomes, from practising to coaching, feedback to role play, hands-on to virtual (see and

It’s good to see the idea of a reflective log book for learners being picked up – something we suggested in our research with City & Guilds on apprenticeships as an adaptation of the individual learning plan. But it is as if both documents see these kinds of ideas as being of little real significance.

Sainsbury argues that “vocational” is past its sell-by date, as it invites comparison with “academic”. Instead, he proposes “technical”. What’s the opposite or alternative to technical, non-technical? If so, we are inviting a similar nonsensical pairing to “cognitive” and “non-cognitive skills”, which has served us ill.

What is the evidence for sifting people so starkly at the age of 16?

For many of the 15 proposed pathways – business, childcare and education, and social care to name but three – technical education does not really work. These might better be described as “professional”. While “vocational” comes freighted with baggage for some people as the second-rate alternative to academic, it also brings with it the dignity of an occupation to which an individual feels “called”. The OECD uses VET – vocational education and training – as its preferred term. Is the choice of “technical” a kind of Brexit-like desire to be seen to be different?

Elsewhere, the language grates. The many uses of the words “industry” and “business” do not sit well with the several million apprentices and vocational learners who would not define themselves in terms of business or industry, especially those working in public services or the not-for-profit sector. By contrast, “enterprise” or “employability” are rarely used when they might add a helpful nuance that is otherwise lost.

The language of the content of vocational or technical education also seems strangely dated: “knowledge, practical skills and behaviours”. It’s as if some of the more innovative research elsewhere in the world – into, for example, capabilities, non-cognitive skills, competencies and habits of mind – has completely passed us by. Words such as “pedagogy” and “learning method” are completely absent from the new lexicon.

Unhelpful absolutism

Although clarity of purpose is sometimes welcome in the learning and skills field, the absolutism of the two proposed routes at 16 is surprising. While it is recognised that some kind of “short, flexible, bridging provision” will be needed for those who are not ready by the age of 16, the reports read as if the innovation of the past few years – not least university technical colleges and studio schools – did not exist. Why no vocational options at 14 (or even earlier)? Many of the same countries to which we are compared unfavourably for uptake of technical education post-16 have well-defined vocational options at 14-16.

More worryingly, there is no mention at all of the biggest single policy change at 14-16: the English Baccalaureate. The EBacc boldly defines itself as a set of “core academic subjects” (albeit with little research justification). With a target of 90 per cent of students taking EBacc subjects, the contrast with post-16 options will be very stark indeed. Couple this with the poor careers advice and guidance that is currently available (recognised in both reports), not to mention the disappearance of work experience pre-16, and it will be a wonder if anyone finds their 16th birthday to be a cause for technical celebration.

As the Skills Plan puts it: “Successive UK governments have spent much of the last 50 years tinkering with vocational education”. Too right. I welcome Sainsbury, but there is much more important pedagogical work to be done. Some serious thinkering is needed to pull this off.

Professor Bill Lucas is director of the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real-World Learning @LucasLearn

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