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Corrigan OwenDr. Owen Corrigan is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange

The
Government’s recent reforms to education have focused on improving the quality
of academic provision and on fostering academic excellence. The introduction of
the Ebacc has spurred more schools to offer a range of traditional academic
subjects – English, Maths, Science, Languages and Humanities – to more
students. Reforms to school league tables have pushed out some of the shoddy,
dead-end vocational qualifications that had been on offer in some schools.
While moves to improve quality are always welcome, recent research from the
Institute of Education shows that the academic route through education may not
be meeting the needs of all learners, with up to 1 in 3 students dropping out
of A-level courses.

Other
research for the DfE shows that at least 1 in 10 students are classified as
‘disengaged’ from education, with other estimates even higher, where 25% of
such students end up as Neets by age 17. Previous government schemes like Young
Apprenticeship and Increased Flexibilities – both offering a greater degree of
work-based, practical learning to students aged 14-16 – showed positive
outcomes in terms of attainment and improved attitudes and motivations towards
education. In our latest Policy Exchange report, Technical Matters, we
advance the case for an alternative route through the education system from
14-19 with a focus on high quality technical and vocational provision that
could help to meet some of these challenges.

Vocational
education in England has come in for deserved criticism of late. A major review
by Prof Alison Wolf uncovered how schools had been prioritising their own
league table performance over the needs and best interests of learners. Many
students were being herded into low quality vocational courses which claimed
‘equivalence’ with two, three or more GCSEs, allowing schools to improve their
league table rankings but leaving students themselves with poor qualifications
not recognised by employers. Reforms to remedy this situation were welcome and
necessary.


However, a
consequence of Ebacc and league table reforms has been to constrain choice for
students. A report by Ipsos-MORI for the DfE showed that over a quarter of
surveyed schools had dropped subjects such as Design & Technology as a
result of the Ebacc, with 1 in 5 of those schools dropping BTECs, popular
vocational qualifications. Interviews conducted as part of our research
revealed teachers’ concerns that they would no longer be able to meet the needs
of non-academic learners in school curricula, feeling compelled instead to offer
subjects that would count in DfE statistics. One headteacher, from a school
serving less academically able students, described this situation as a
“disaster”.

Delivering
education of the highest quality is an important goal for everyone involved in
education. However, in a national education system, there are other important
goals, not least of which is meeting the needs of all of the students
within that system. These two goals are not incompatible. Demanding – and
celebrating – excellence for academic learners does not preclude us from doing
the same for those who learn in more practical and applied ways. We need to
ensure that an alternative route through education is held to the same exacting
standards to which we hold academic learning.

Vocational
education has for too long been dismissed as a second tier for the second best,
subject to a deep-seated and snobbish cultural antipathy, as many participants
in our research observed. To ensure the highest quality of provision our report
recommends that we borrow lessons from international examples of effective
technical and vocational systems such as Germany and the Netherlands. This
means involving employers in a much more substantive way with education, by
informing the curriculum, taking the central role in quality assurance of
provision, and engaging with schools and colleges to ensure labour market
relevance of the qualifications on offer.

Alongside
this we make further recommendations to ensure that schools are inspected in
this type of provision to the same high standards as colleges, and that
students make the decisions about the type of provision that is right for them
in the context of full information and with a stronger approach to providing
comprehensive advice and guidance.

The public seem
ready for an alternative way to ‘do’ education in Britain, with 47% of people
polled by YouGov as part of our research indicating that they felt there was
too much emphasis on academic learning in our schools and not enough on
practical and job-related learning, while only 21% felt that the balance was
about right. Meanwhile, employers complain that the education system is not
meeting their needs or producing young people with sufficient employability
skills and, partly as a result, the number of apprenticeship starts for 16-18
year olds has fallen by 10% in the last year.

A reformed
system offering a high-quality technical and vocational route through education
could encourage businesses to hire more apprentices while better preparing
students for the world of work and, perhaps most importantly, moving us towards
a system which meets the needs of all of our young people, academic and
non-academic alike.

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