On the 31st of January the UK Government announced that it was reducing the number of vocational qualifications offered in UK schools and colleges. This decision came out of the Wolf Report last year. Prof Alison Wolf noted that a quarter to a third (300,000 – 400,000) of 16 to 19 year olds are on ‘vocational’ courses which do not lead to higher education or good jobs.
There has been an exponential growth in the number of these courses in the last ten years, as well as the number of students taking them. The media were full of recriminations against schools because teachers were choosing to put pupils on these vocational courses that were rated for school assessment purposes as equivalent to 4, 5 or 6 GCSEs. Where teachers felt that students were at risk of not achieving that number of passes – if they took actual GCSE examinations- students were encouraged to take vocational ‘equivalent’ qualifications. However, outside school league tables very few people – not teachers or employers – valued these qualifications, and they became seen as a badge of poor ability, rather than any measure of success. In fact students might have been better without any qualifications rather than some of these. But the problem in a situation like this is not the action of teachers. Teachers and schools were responding quite rationally to an inappropriate incentive scheme, established by the UK government to ‘improve quality’ in schools. The creation of league table performance measures as indicators of school quality directs effort to increasing league table performance rather than teaching performance. Efforts to increase league table performance through the selective choice of qualifications taught produced bigger gains faster than improving in teaching quality and staying with traditional examinations.
Unfortunately this doesn’t help address the dire situation the UK is in with respect to vocational education and increased structural inequality. Last year – for the first time- I looked at women doing vocational qualifications in the UK and it seems clear to me that the new areas of ‘soft’ ICT skills have become feminized, and vocational qualifications in these subjects simply channel women into low skilled and low paid work. Unlike university level ICT education, which has opened opportunities for women and students coming from families with no experience of higher education, sub-degree level ICT vocational education reproduces gender and socio- economic class within and through ICT occupations. Vocational education, in the UK at least, is a tool of structural inequality rather than an opportunity for social mobility.
*She’d be much better off on the stage!