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Vocational courses limit social mobility

If you are born into poverty in the UK, chances are you'll remain in poverty for the rest of your life. Research by the LSE shows that social mobility in Britain is lower than in any advanced country other than the US.

However, whilst social mobility in the US is static, in Britain it is declining. The Government hopes initiatives directed at FE - such as the educational maintenance allowance and the widening participation agenda - will help to improve life chances, enabling youngsters to learn and earn their way out of poverty and into a more employable and inclusive future.

Yet, what exactly are we offering students that will allow opportunities for a brighter tomorrow?

One of the main ways in which we think youngsters can obtain employment and a degree of social mobility is through gaining a raft of vocational qualifications. This appears logical; we are, after all, told that there is a "skills gap" and that the economy would be successful if only more people had the necessary skills. We're told that giving young people skills will help them avoid getting pregnant and turn away from a life of crime to become better citizens. In turn, we tell our students that studying for vocational qualifications in subjects from health and beauty to social care will give them transferable work skills, qualifications recognised by industry and, as a final shot, something a little less boring than school.

But, crucially, will gaining these qualifications give students a nudge up the social ladder?

There is not much evidence to suggest they can. Most vocational qualifications offer little in the way of specific job training. In the past, an apprenticeship and day-release scheme would have seen youngsters gaining relevant, on-the-job experience from day one that was later built upon in the classroom. Nowadays, most vocational courses are taught entirely in the classroom, often by teachers with no industrial experience themselves. This means youngsters can no longer walk out of college and into skilled occupations. Someone wanting to do hairdressing, for example, would need to gain some hands-on experience before being left alone with a client.

The form-filling, box-ticking and paper exercises involved in GNVQs mean teachers can cheerfully get 14-year-olds through a clutch of vocational qualifications. But by promoting such courses to children we are denying them access to a greater cultural capital that is surely their entitlement.

This is one place the social divide becomes apparent. Whilst some deserve geography, others are relegated to travel and tourism. Maths may now be for the elite - applied numeracy is considered more appropriate for the lumpen mass. It is this denial of access to specific vocational or academic content that limits social mobility.

One college principal I spoke to recently fondly recalled his days as an apprentice brickie. He told me he still had his textbooks from liberal studies, English and maths and that geometry was taught to a high level to make it easy for students to pass on to the HNC. This is exactly what's missing - and preventing social mobility - today. No matter how brilliant your applied numeracy, you'll not have the skills for pure maths.

In a move that turns reality on its head, the proponents of today's vocational options claim the lack of specific skills or rigorous academic content is actually a really positive development. Instead, they argue, courses are designed to promote generic skills - such as dealing with people - which can easily be transferred from one sector of the economy to another. The message to students seems to be: "You may think you are training to be a hairdresser but, let's face it, half of you won't make it.

So, instead of giving you hairdressing skills, we'll give you people skills so that when you end up working in a call centre, you'll get on just fine."

Today's vocational qualifications rob youngsters of opportunities for social mobility. We no longer train students in high-level sector-specific skills that would enable them to master a trade and progress up the ladder. We no longer offer students rigorous and suitably general academic components on vocational courses that would enable them to keep their options open and transfer to higher level courses. Instead, we offer low-level general skills that consign them to low-wage, low-skill jobs - without any sign of a hand up the social mobility ladder.

Joanna Williams is a lecturer and researcher

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