In the UK, 69% of 16 to 18 year olds undertake academic study, with 31% studying vocational education. By way of comparison in Switzerland 35% of 16 to 18 year olds are in academic learning and 65% studying vocational pathways.
With an increasing focus on Apprenticeships in recent years (together with changes to the HE system such as increased tuition fees), there is the potential for this to be rebalanced. But one question being raised now is will the RPA impact the numbers of vocational learners, with the school participation age increasing to 17 this year and 18 by 2015.
Perhaps I am being optimistic but I don't think that RPA will dramatically impact the number of 16 to 18 year olds taking apprenticeships, as RPA does not mean young people must stay in school, instead they can choose one of the following options post-16:
- Full-time education, such as school, college, or home education;
- An Apprenticeship;
- Part-time education or training if they employed, self-employed or volunteering full-time (defined as 20 hours or more a week).
The challenge however is ensuring that young people, their parents, teachers and careers advisor are fully aware of the options available at 16 as RPA comes into force. This means effectively communicating the options available through informed careers advice to young people and their parents along with teachers and careers advisors having a working knowledge of what is available.
In addition, we must ensure that vocational learning and qualifications are reflected equally to academic pathways in school league tables.
Destination Measures have been a welcomed initiative, giving young people and their parents better information as to where past school/college leavers are now. But if league tables favour academic learning in any way, then the RPA could have detrimental impacts on vocational learning.
Study Programmes are a positive step, maximising the potential of young people to progress onto HE or employment by ensuring vocational routes are seen as high quality and a genuine alternative to academic routes. Study Programmes look to offering young people work experience placements, English and maths provision (for those who have not achieved Level 2) alongside high-quality vocational qualifications, and will be introduced in September this year.
But I also think there is a role here for the Technical Baccalaureate, which has been proposed by both the Opposition and the coalition government. A TechBacc would give young people an alternative route into a higher-level Apprenticeship; study at HE institution or into full-time employment.
A TechBacc model would show young people and the industry that the government is committed to vocational education and developing qualifications that are truly valued by employers.
In particular we endorse the two models proposed by the Baker-Dearing Trust; one aimed at those 16, and another at those aged 18. Both models include the core elements that employers are looking for; a work experience placement, employability skills, functional and/or studies in English, maths and ICT and technical and vocational qualifications endorsed by employers.
Only one in five manufacturers responding to a recent EEF survey said vocational qualifications were more relevant now than two years ago, with a quarter disagreeing.
Another challenge will of course be getting schools and colleges to offer this new qualification. University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools are most likely to offer such a qualifications, given their strong focus on mixing vocational and academic learning, but we need to see all schools – state-maintained, free schools, Academies, Studio Schools and UTCs to use the RPA to really promote and encourage vocational and academic learning.
Employers don't prioritise an academic profile over a vocational one but increasingly a combination of the two.