Flexibility between vocational and academic routes essential

Today’s publication of the Wolf Review of vocational education has invited the inevitable lazy headlines about too many ‘dead-end’ courses, writes Sally Hunt.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

Today’s publication of the Wolf Review of vocational education has invited the inevitable lazy headlines about too many ‘dead-end’ courses.

While these tired clichés are to be expected, they mask the fact that many students do want to study a range of courses before deciding what career to pursue, and that different people take different routes through their education.

It is essential, as the government considers its response, that young people are given access to a broad curriculum and not forced to choose between vocational and non-vocational routes at a young age.

The current insistence on pupils having 5 A*-C GSCEs by the time they are 16 puts unnecessary pressure on young people, some of whom have resigned themselves to failing by the time they are 15, and means that the half (44%) who do not get five good GSCSEs feel it is a terminal blow to their career chances. It is imperative they are given more time and access to a more supportive curriculum.

While I welcome the report’s recommendation for pupils studying vocational subjects to continue to study more traditional subjects, there has to be flexibility within the system for students to move between vocational courses and more traditional academic routes in schools.

This last thing we want is a return to the 1950s tri-partite system, when children who didn’t it make to a grammar school or selective technical college were effectively told they had to settle for studying in a secondary modern.

We risk repeating those mistakes with the introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs). They are the brainchild of former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker, who, along with other supporters, claims they will bring more variety to the educational landscape and help train teenagers to become the builders, technicians and engineers of the future. Although listening to him on the Today Programme this morning, it sounded like he was advocating Victorian workhouses.

For others, however, they represent a dangerous experiment that could destroy the existing relationship between further education colleges and schools who work in partnership to provide high quality vocational education for 16-19 year-olds.

UTCs are, in effect, another extension of the government’s academy programme that could end up competing for public funds with schools and colleges. Particularly as they have very high start-up costs and concentrate on subjects which require specialised, modern and expensive equipment; Aston University Technical College, for example, which will specialise in Formula 1 motor racing engineering, will cost £17 million to set up.

In order to improve standards across the board we need all institutions to be well-funded and capable of delivering high-quality education. I fear that the UTCs experiment could lead to selection by the back door and a system where students, typically from working-class backgrounds, are channelled in to vocational subjects in relatively under-resourced colleges, while their wealthier contemporaries are encouraged to pursue traditional academic routes in school or high-tech courses only available in UTCs.

What must be avoided at all costs, as even Wolf recognises, is young people being herded into one type of education or another at far too young an age. We need a system for 14-19 year-olds that ensures equality of access across a broad curriculum.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.