Article - Issue 47, June 2011

The Wolf Review on vocational education

Professor Helen Atkinson FREng

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Last year, Professor Alison Wolf was asked by the Education Secretary Michael Gove to conduct a review into vocational education for 14- to 19-year olds. She was asked to consider how to improve the organisation of vocational education, decide the appropriate target audience and age for those undertaking it and the principles that should underpin the content, structure and teaching methods. The Wolf Review was published in March 2011 and Professor Helen Atkinson FREng looks at its findings and the implications it has for UK engineering.

There were a few lines that immediately stood out for me from Professor Wolf’s review. One was: “The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little or no market value”. Another read: “English and Maths GCSE (at Grades A*-C) are fundamental to young people’s employment and education prospects. Yet less than 50% of students have both at ….age 15/16 and at age 18 the figure is still below 50%. Worse, the funding and accountability systems established by government create perverse incentives to steer 16+ students into inferior alternative qualifications.”

Professor Wolf also described many vocational qualifications as ‘dead-end’ and “English vocational education as extraordinarily complex and opaque”. I am sure we can all testify to this latter observation. The shifting sands of vocational education over the last few years have reduced the confidence of employers, parents and careers advisors in being able to give good advice. We need stability so that we can get to know and trust the vocational qualifications which are on offer.

What has this got to do with engineering? Apart from the engineering undergraduates who take a vocational route to university, the engineering profession needs well qualified technicians (via what is called the Vocationally Related Qualification, VRQ, route at level 3 – the equivalent of ‘A’ level) and demonstrations of adequate competence (most commonly by completing an Advanced Apprenticeship through an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) – the acronyms are starting to encroach already!

The “low-level” qualifications Professor Wolf is referring to are Level 1 and Level 2. Technicians generally require a good GCSE in Mathematics so one of the issues here is how those young people who are not switched on to maths at school (or are not in a school environment where learning is easy), but may have the kind of practical engineering orientation we are looking for, can achieve Maths GCSE after they are 16.

It has been fascinating watching Jamie’s Dream School and seeing some young people deciding they really do want to learn but having the environment strongly disrupted by other pupils. We do need to have ‘second chances’ for those who do discover their motivation beyond 16 (or move into a more conducive learning environment) and this is part of what Professor Wolf is getting at with her emphasis on the need for those who do not get a good GCSE in Maths at age 16 to be required to focus on getting it between 16 and 18.

Intermediate and higher level Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a remarkably small part of the Further Education (FE) system, given its importance to the economy and the fact that there are jobs out there in engineering which employers tell us remain unfilled. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that only 11% of learners in the English FE College System are taking level 3 STEM qualifications. There is too great an emphasis on low level skills. This has partly been driven by the way the funding system works and one of the proposals which Professor Wolf makes is that the funding should follow the learner rather than the qualification. We really want to see much more progression into the higher level vocational qualifications. Professor Wolf’s funding recommendations should help with that but as always the devil will be in the detail.

The Academy has found that there are nearly 2,500 different STEM and STEM-related qualifications offered by the FE and Skills Sector in 2009/10. It is no wonder that we (and the young people) are confused. Surely there is a need for simplification and clarification? The Academy has also looked at the way individual qualifications are marketed and there is very little evidence that young people are given hard information about the impact on earnings of particular qualifications and the potential for employability. Professor Wolf, quite rightly, wants to see much better quality of information given about courses and qualifications.

Professor Wolf is strongly supportive of apprenticeships, advocating more high quality apprenticeships for young people aged 16-18 and that employers should be part-subsidised to offer such apprenticeships. This has to be good for engineering, particularly as engineering apprenticeship qualifications set the gold standard that Alison Wolf is recommending that everyone should be seeking to achieve.

However, engineering apprenticeships are expensive to run and this is why many apprenticeship schemes came to an end during the recession in the ‘80s. In addition, the employers who ran apprentice schemes became rather disillusioned with the fact that their best apprentices were being picked off as soon as they qualified by firms which did not run such schemes. What this implies is that there needs to be a ‘community of commitment’ where all engineering firms of any significant size become involved. The government should then ‘put its money where its mouth is’ to support companies that decide to commit to such schemes. In addition, for the schemes that do run, the employers need to have safeguards so they do benefit from their investment by retaining the people they have trained.

The Wolf report has made many hard hitting observations which no doubt will have generated some discomfort in some quarters. For engineering, there is some good news in the emphasis on Maths, on apprenticeships, on progression to higher level qualifications and on clear information about the value of courses. Now we wait to see what happens….

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