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UK - Reviewing vocational education and training in England: the emerging landscape

ReferNet UK

The role of vocational education and training and its contribution to the lifelong learning agenda has pre-occupied the United Kingdom Government for some time now. Following this year's review of VET in England by Professor Alison Wolf, the Department for Education published its response in May 2011, accepting Professor Wolf's recommendations for reforms to the current system in England.

The starting point for the Wolf Review of VET was that the current mainstream educational system has failed too many young people, often resulting in young people pursuing courses which provide little opportunity for progression and which fail to recognise the different needs of learners.

Three key themes emerge from the review:

  • the need for more emphasis on the core academic skills of English and Mathematics, and the continued study of these subjects beyond Key Stage 4 (age 16), where the learner has not achieved the minimum standard;
  • the need to make sure that the best vocational qualifications are recognised, and that value is measured in terms of what opportunities for progression and employment the qualifications provide for the learners, rather than the number of qualifications taken and passed;
  • the need for continued support and promotion of apprenticeships to ensure that they incorporate the right skills for the workplace, and more direct involvement of employers at local level to agree content, assessment and awarding processes.

Professor Wolf used the term "perverse incentive" in relation to ways in which schools are compared to each other on the basis of the performance of their pupils, with all results published in national Achievement and Attainment Tables. It has been suggested that it has been common practice for schools to offer pupils alternative qualifications in order to protect the school's performance ranking. This practice has meant that many young people have been wrongly guided onto courses which might have had a detrimental impact on their future choices.

The UK Government has accepted the Wolf Review recommendation to reduce the number of ‘approved’ qualification types from 2013. The conclusion of the Review was that more effort should be spent on providing for the genuine needs of young people and the labour market. Funding should follow the learner and the choice of qualification should be determined by appropriateness for the individual and supported by effective information, advice and guidance in relation to progression pathways.

In order to ease the transference of teachers between schools and further education the Wolf Review recommends that teachers who have successfully gained Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills status (QTLS) will be able to teach, with full parity, in schools in the future.

Wolf also recommended that there should no longer be a requirement for all vocational qualifications to be developed within the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), and that there should be greater emphasis on regulation of awarding organisations, with a corresponding emphasis on self regulation of qualifications by these organisations.

A significant new development is the establishment of University Technical Colleges (UTCs). UTCs have been created as free-standing colleges to cater for 14-19 year olds through a partnership approach involving the Baker Dearing Educational Trust (BDT), the Department for Education (DfE), Universities, local employers and some Further Education (FE) Colleges. There are believed to be over 130 local companies involved across England, and to date, 18 UTCs have been approved to operate, with a Government pledge to increase this to 24. The curriculum to be offered by a UTC must include at least one technical specialism alongside the national core GCSE curriculum and finance, business, entrepreneurial and employability skills.