Vocational education gets `focus it deserves'

Parties score points as Ofqual probes non-academic qualifications

Vocational education in England is to receive unprecedented attention in the run-up to next year's general election, as it comes under the scrutiny of the exams regulator and MPs.

Not only has Ofqual announced that it is "ramping up" its efforts on vocational qualifications but it has also emerged that the Commons Education Select Committee is holding its last inquiry into the subject before the election.

Politicians are increasing the rhetoric, too. Last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband set out plans to introduce "technical degrees" backed by employers and universities for those who do not want to study academic subjects, while former skills minister Matthew Hancock said he wanted to "bridge the divide" between academic and vocational education.

Ofqual told TES it had been planning to look at vocational qualifications "for some time".

"With reforms to general qualifications now well under way, we are in a position to provide even more focus on VQs than before," said a spokeswoman.

Speaking at a summit in London last week, Jeremy Benson, the regulator's director of policy, said Ofqual had an important role to play in improving quality and making sure all qualifications were "fit for purpose".

"We're raising our expectations for vocational qualifications and planning to remove poor-quality qualifications that provide weak progression opportunities," he added.

Mr Benson said although the debate about standards was focused on academic qualifications, it was "no less important" that employers could trust that vocational qualifications were properly awarded to those who deserved them.

"The ultimate test of the value of a qualification is not a technical judgement about whether it is valid, but whether employers trust it in the long term," he added.

At the same event, Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chairman of the Education Select Committee, announced that his committee would shortly start an inquiry into vocational education. More details are expected in the next few weeks.

"This country has traditionally struggled to give vocational education anything like the status it has enjoyed in countries like Austria and Germany," Mr Stuart said.

The increased focus has been welcomed by the sector, although there is concern about whether action and funding will follow. Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which runs the vocational BTEC qualification, told TES it was good to see vocational education "finally getting the attention it deserves".

"Young people and employers are increasingly demanding high-quality, respected, credible vocational learning pathways," he said. "There's no point in bemoaning `parity of esteem' any more; esteem will follow from quality and employability. We welcome both the inquiry and Ofqual's focus for that reason."

Michael Osbaldeston, special adviser for skills with vocational qualifications body City amp; Guilds, said: "There's been an increasing amount of interest in the whole technical vocational education area for some time. Colleges are building good relationships with employers and there's an increasing awareness of apprenticeships and where they can take young people. All this reflects well on the FE sector."

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said there was now a "cross-party consensus" on the importance of vocational education.

"We share their common aims of increasing the number of individuals with higher-level technical skills and promoting apprenticeships, and are pleased at the recognition by all major parties that FE colleges are central to these ambitions," she said.

But last week Labour held an opposition debate in the House of Commons on vocational and technical education in which its education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, accused the government of "negligence".

"The government are failing young people who want a gold-standard technical education, and they are not securing our skills base," he said. Former skills minister Matthew Hancock said the government was undertaking the "most radical reform of vocational education in Britain for a generation".

But Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said more was still to be done. "The increased focus on vocational education is good but it has to go along with the right information, advice and guidance for young people about the different routes available to them," he added.

"You can't just change vocational learning and expect to get it right. There's still a huge cultural issue in the UK around the academic-vocational divide and we are not going to solve that overnight."

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