Celebrating #VQDay with two asks for the new Government

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National Vocational Qualification Day 2015 #VQDay

Today is National Vocational Qualifications Day (#VQDay).  Quite simply it is an annual event that recognises the value of vocational qualifications (VQs) in a bid to raise the status of technical, practical and technical learning.

The world of vocational qualifications can be seen as quite complex, (and forms only a small part of a very complex skills and education system). But many employers will recognise a vocational qualification as a recognised qualification at any level relating to a particular line of work or specific role. Examples well-known amongst employers and learners alike will include BTECS, NVQs, HNCs/HNDs and of course Apprenticeships.

The importance of VQs for manufacturers

So why should be celebrate, or even promote VQs? Well there are a number of statistics on this but let me give you a couple for now:

  • Advanced Apprenticeships increase lifetime earnings by an average of 18%
  • For every million pounds invested in further education (including Apprenticeships) generates £75million for the UK economy

So clearly there are benefits to the learner, and the wider economy. There are also benefits to employers such as acquiring new skills and succession planning.

Vocational qualifications are extremely valuable for manufacturers. In particular they will familiarise themselves with apprenticeships which they see as playing a key role. In fact:

  • Three-quarters of manufacturers offer apprenticeships

  • Two-thirds plan to recruit a manufacturing and engineering apprentice in the next 12 months

  • Half of manufacturers offer apprenticeships to get more young people into manufacturing.

VQs must be relevant and responsive to employers

What is of key importance to employers is that VQs are relevant to them. When we surveyed members back in 2012 about VQs, only one in five agreed that VQs were more relevant then that the two years previous. Since then, we have seen some positive reform. The Whitehead Review of Adult Vocational Qualifications for example found that whilst there were 19,000 adult vocational qualifications were available, 1,780 vocational qualifications made up 90% of achievements. Since then, a cull of of redundant and obsolete VQs has begun.

We’ve also seen a transformation of Apprenticeships. Old frameworks, often considered complex, lengthy and sometimes unresponsive to employers are now being replaced by new employer-led standards. These standards are short and concise; in fact the previous Skills Minister set the challenge to employer to write the new standards on a single piece of A4. But reducing the content of the standard is less important, what is really important is the relevance of the standard itself. The Apprenticeship Trailblazers, led by key industry experts are developing standards to ensure they are fit-for-purpose for the industry they represent.

Learning lessons from the past

Of course, recent governments have not always got reform to VQs right. The downgrading of the Engineering Diploma is an example of this. The Engineering Diploma had been designed and developed by industry experts, yet the last government decided to tar all Diplomas with the same brush – arguing that they were not delivering for either learners or employers and downgraded the value of the Engineering Diploma from 5 GCSES to 1 (therefore offering very little incentive for schools and colleges to offer it!). Since then, the government has to some extent listened to the concerns industry and re-introduced the Engineering Diploma in some form, with the help   and guidance of the Royal Academy of Engineering, to produce 4 new GCSEs which collectively contain the key principles of the Engineering Diploma in its former form.

Whilst we can’t dwell on the recent past, we can learn lessons from it and this is important for new initiatives such as the new Apprenticeship standards being led by the Trailblazers. There remain many questions, even for those Trailblazers who are leading the way, questions about governance and review periods and the role of additional stakeholders.. However, it is vital for government to remember that such initiatives that involve a number of stakeholders take investment, in both time and resources to succeed, and must be allowed time to become embedded before we chop and change it again

Of course, another part of the challenge is getting young people to consider a vocational pathway. Young people in the UK are still more likely to pursue an academic pathway than a vocational one, yet our European counterparts tend to have a far more event split, or slightly more choosing the vocational route.

This means getting all our asks on careers advice and work experience (and all EEF's other Skills Manifesto asks) right. Everyone seems to agree that careers provision needs a radical overhaul and work experience is vital for any education lever; yet government is being too slow at addressing this. But there’s something else we need to do. When I’ve spoken to employers recently they continue to criticise the weighting of school league tables arguing that they are simply bias to keeping young people in academic study.

So two main takeaways/recommendations for the new Government on #VQDay:

  1. Keep the foot on the peddle on VQ reform to ensure that they are rigorous, relevant and responsive and ensure employers play a key role in driving this forward. And once employers have given them their seal of improval, resist the temptation to chop and change the system.

  2. Review school league tables to ensure that young people taking apprenticeships (and indeed other rigorous and relevant VQs) are of equal weighting to staying on for academic study to truly raise the status of practical and technical learning.

Author

Head of Education & Skills Policy

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