Vocational courses will be seen as equal to academic options only when more middle-class children take them up, the former chair of Ofsted has claimed.
Baroness Sally Morgan said that vocational education and training was too often seen as the “consolation prize” for young people if they had failed to shine academically.
Baroness Morgan said that in the UK technical ability seemed to be identified in children only from low-income families.
“Remarkably, it seems to be entirely absent in the children of the middle classes,” she told the annual gathering of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) this week.
She told the audience of headteachers from the country's most elite private schools: “When we see Cabinet ministers, or even dare I say headmasters of our most respected schools, boasting that their daughter has bagged an engineering apprenticeship at BAe rather than a place at Balliol [College, Oxford University], then perhaps we will know we are making progress.”
The Labour peer left her post at the inspectorate this month after former education secretary Michael Gove decided in February not to give her a second term. She is currently chairing a select committee in the House of Lords on digital skills and competitiveness.
Baroness Morgan said a number of recent moves had been made to address the country’s “historic failure” on vocational education, such as the large increase in apprenticeships, the new accountability regime for further education colleges and the opening of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), but it would be premature to indulge in “mutual backslapping”.
“We do not yet have a vocational system that rivals our international competitors,” she said. “Vorsprung durch Technik isn’t a phrase that was minted in Thurrock or Woking or Hull. Until we have an English equivalent, perhaps we should put the champagne on ice.”
The “automatic assumption” that vocational education was second-rate must be overcome, she added, but that could only be achieved through a thorough process of reform and “not another set of piecemeal reforms, acronyms and committees”.