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Vocational qualifications: a rationalisation too far?

06 February 2012

Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that only the very highest quality vocational qualifications were to be included in future secondary school Performance League Tables. The move was in response to a report published by Professor Alison Wolf last year, which accused the current Performance Table system of creating "perverse incentives" for some schools to steer pupils towards courses that might boost their Performance League Table positions, but without necessarily benefiting pupils’ prospects.

There are currently 3,175 so-called equivalent qualifications accredited and approved for study by 14- to 16-year-olds, all of which count in the tables, and some of them being worth as much as four, five or even six GCSEs. However, from 2014 just 125 of these qualifications will count. Is Professor Wolf right in her assertion that the proliferation of vocational courses is just a ruse on the part of schools to move up the League Table, or has this drastic pruning simply robbed a generation of an opportunity to transfer a little more smoothly into the world of work?

According to the DfE announcement, Key Stage 4 Performance Tables will be restricted to qualifications that are "high quality, rigorous and enable progression to a range of study and employment opportunities". Qualifications will only be included if they are the same size as a GCSE or larger, and each qualification will count for one in the Performance Tables irrespective of its size.

Of the 125 to be included, 70 can count towards a school’s main Performance Table measure – the proportion of pupils who get five A* to C GCSE grades; the other 55 are qualifications which cannot contribute to the five A* to C measure. Some of the qualifications included are subject to future review, either because they have demonstrated they have most but not all of the necessary characteristics, or because they are too new to demonstrate a track record. Just five key vocational qualifications (including the Engineering Diploma) are retained indefinitely, and while they will count towards Performance League Table positioning, each will only represent one GCSE.

Schools will remain free to offer any other qualification accredited and approved for study by 14- to 16-year-olds, and teachers will still be able to use their professional judgement to offer the qualifications which they believe are right for their pupils. But only those meeting the DfE’s requirements will count in Performance Tables.

Education secretary Michael Gove, claims the changes will extend opportunity because only those qualifications that had demonstrated rigour and had track records of taking young people into good jobs and university would count in future. "For too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualifications are intrinsically the same. Young people have taken courses that have led nowhere," he says.

The decision to downgrade the engineering diploma to just one GCSE equivalent raised alarm among industry leaders. IMechE chief executive, Stephen Tetlow, while welcoming the fact that engineering diplomas will still count towards GCSE league tables, expresses "worry" at their downgrading from five to just one GCSE.

"An engineering diploma takes about 20 hours study time a week so this downgrade will deter schools from offering this subject," says Mr Tetlow. "It is vital that we encourage more young engineering talent in this country but this decision does the reverse. Government must either urgently reassess this decision or say what it is going to do instead to put engineering back on the map in schools."

The Royal Academy of Engineering is also relieved that the government is including the core of the Level 2 14-19 Diploma in Engineering in its list of just five very high quality vocational qualifications, but warns that it takes the equivalent of four GCSEs in terms of teaching time.
"This decision is hugely damaging to the prospects for young people. The Diploma in Engineering enjoys widespread support from industry as it directly addresses key areas of skills shortage," says RAE's director of education, Professor Matthew Harrison. "Engineering skills are strategically important for the country, particularly in the current economic climate, and the need to innovate and encourage the development of practical, creative technical skills has never been greater. It is naive to expect young people to spend all day studying for one qualification when in the same study time their friends can achieve four."

"It is not too late to fix this," Professor Harrison adds. "It would not require legislation or a penny spent. Simply let the five qualifications identified as meeting the government's own requirements be recognised for the time they take to study. That is both fair to pupils and takes a deliberate step toward economic recovery."

In an open letter to The Daily Telegraph dated January 23, IET president, Mike Short cautioned the secretary of state against such a precipitous move, claiming the engineering community is "surprised and stunned" at the government's plan to downgrade the value of the existing Engineering Diploma after so little time since it came into existence.

"The Engineering Diploma is widely recognised as a significant route to providing the crucial technical and practical skills that young people will need to build a Britain that can compete effectively and internationally where technology can make such a difference to our digital world," he stated in the letter. "Industry and the professional engineering institutions have worked extensively to make this 14-19 qualification a highly robust and attractive qualification, which now appears to be being undermined by the government’s premature decision to downgrade its worth."

Dr Short's letter was co-signed by 15 business leaders from companies including Airbus, Boeing UK, JCB, Siemens, Sony and The National Grid.

Meanwhile, statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirm substantial growth in apprenticeship starts and completions. Some 457,200 apprenticeship starts were delivered in the full 2010/11 academic year, representing a 63.5% increase on 2009/10 figures. Growth took place at all levels of learning, for all age groups, and across all sectors and all regions.

The Statistical First Release gives data on apprenticeship success rates for 2010/11 for the first time, with 76.4% of learners successfully completing their apprenticeships.

Juergen Maier, MD of Siemens Industry Sector in the UK and Ireland, describes these statistics as "promising reading". "At Siemens the number of apprentices we employ is growing, with an intake of around 100 new apprentices each year," he says. "We currently support approximately 300 apprentices in a vast array of apprenticeships and as an engineering company strongly believe more needs to be done to encourage more people into the manufacturing sector through apprenticeships.
“The manufacturing sector needs at least 235,000 new workers at apprentice or technician level over the next 10 years, so it is crucial this trend of growth in apprenticeship numbers continues," Mr Maier adds. "In addition, more also needs to be done to address the image of engineering and manufacturing in the UK to ensure those taking the apprenticeship path, do so in these industries.”

Les Hunt

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