Dr. 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.