Dr. Owen Corrigan is a Research Fellow in Education at Policy Exchange.
Launching the Government’s update on the social mobility strategy yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister railed against the class snobbery which, he says, has made Britain a closed society. A society where people don’t choose their place, rather they know their place. Nick Clegg argued that the under-representation of less well off pupils at Oxbridge, where only one in 100 entrants had been on free school meals compared to one in five in the general population, was morally, economically and socially intolerable. Key policies aimed at the transition points in young people’s lives will throw more grant money at disadvantaged university applicants while continuous monitoring of universities themselves will ensure they are making full efforts to widen participation among disadvantaged groups.
Yet this veers rather close to another form of snobbery, the kind which assumes that middle class aspirations around university attendance are the only aspirations we should encourage in young people. At the same conference, Ed Miliband deplored the snobbery that says that the only route to social mobility runs through university. Vocational education in Britain has long been treated as second class, he said, and claimed that it was essential to put in place a better offer for those who don’t go to higher education. In this he was correct.
In fairness to the Government, it has acknowledged the shortcomings of vocational education in Britain, undertaking to implement the recommendations made by Professor Alison Wolf in her report on the system last year. One of these major recommendations entails stripping out all but a limited number of vocational subjects from school league tables. This will have the desirable effect of removing educational pitfalls for pupils, where they end up with Mickey Mouse qualifications that are absolutely useless on the labour market. But alongside Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate reforms, designed to encourage traditional academic subjects, vocational education seems likely to remain second class, the slow lane alternative for those who missed the turn-off for the university highway.
Large numbers of those who apply to university – about 200,000 last year – fail to secure any place. This at a time when Britain faces a shortage of those with the high-level skills needed for industry. People from all backgrounds should never be discouraged from going to university, but likewise more modest aspirations must not simply be dismissed. For those who are not well served or simply not engaged by academic learning, how can we ensure that their skills and talents are best utilised?
At Policy Exchange we are looking at the potential for reform of the system to introduce a hard, serious alternative stream of vocational provision into British education. Our European neighbours, like Germany and Austria for instance, do things differently, with clear alternative pathways for those wishing to take academic or vocational routes. Strong employer involvement, structured labour market transitions and a serious approach to the vocational offer, which treats it not as a poor cousin for the incapable but as a qualitatively different route through education, has seen some of the lowest rates of youth unemployment in Europe and less patterning of vocational take-up by class background than is the case in Britain.
Research from the DfE and also from the LSE estimates that in Britain 10-20% of pupils are disengaged from mainstream education. Responding to the diversity of preferences that young people hold, by allowing for the streaming of more vocationally-oriented pupils into a track with a largely vocational focus and strong work/practice-based element at a younger age, perhaps from 14 as in Austria, may offset such disengagement – as short-lived schemes here like Young Apprenticeship succeeded in doing. At the same time it could allow us to address our skills deficit.
The scope exists to enact such change without untenable new capital expenditure by building on the extant network of Further Education colleges across the country. The one size fits all evaluation of what constitutes educational success in Britain sits poorly within a system which elsewhere rightly places so much emphasis on choice and flexibility. Radical reform like this holds out the potential of saving vocational education from its traditional status as second best while at the same time moving us further in the right direction, towards an education system that works for every single one of our young people.