Zakiyah, Shah, Robyn, Natasha and Daiva all have something in common; they are high achieving vocational students who completed advanced courses at NewVIc last year. Together with many others, they achieved the highest possible grades. In their case in: construction, mechanical engineering, childcare, IT and travel & tourism. Some also achieved high grades in an additional A level subject and all 5 progressed to Russell group universities: University College London, Queen Mary University of London, Birmingham and Sheffield. They are studying degrees in: construction project management, mathematics, education, computer science and Japanese studies respectively.
These 5 are among the 13 vocational students who progressed to Russell group universities. This is a small but significant group within the 418 NewVIc vocational students who progressed to university overall in 2013 and the 60 who progressed to Russell group institutions overall. The majority of these were black and minority students living in so called deprived postcodes, over 40% would probably have been eligible for free school meals had we been funded to provide them, and 130 of them came through the 3 year route, the final year of which is about to lose 17.5% of its funding.
Thanks to the vocational qualifications they achieved, these 418 young people now have the opportunity to pursue interesting and valuable professional careers in: dance, theatre studies, surveying, engineering, accounting, law, sports science, architecture, tourism, media, marketing … to mention just a few.
The success of these young people is built on the intensive and challenging vocational programmes they followed; courses requiring the development of deep levels of professional knowledge and mastery. To achieve high grades, students will have produced outstanding assignments, projects and portfolios demonstrating the application of extensive knowledge and a broad range of interconnected skills. This is why so many universities value the excellent preparation they offer for many applied degrees.
Obviously, we are as proud of these achievements as the students are themselves. We celebrate the confidence, creativity and mastery demonstrated by these young people. But is this pride echoed by our national politicians and is the celebration reflected in our national media? Do our policy-makers really understand vocational education?
Sadly, the tone of the national conversation about vocational qualifications is more often distrustful than celebratory; questioning their quality and rigour, making unflattering comparisons with A-levels and implying they are less challenging because they have less external assessment. Substantial and demanding programmes have been confused with smaller or less stretching ones sending out a message of low quality overall. The contradictory rhetoric around vocational courses has done much harm.
Then there is the confused rhetoric of the “forgotten 50%” with its implication that vocational courses are for students who don’t want to, or won’t, go to university. Our experience is that this is clearly not the case: 83% of our advanced vocational students applied and 85% of them obtained university places last year.
So it’s time to really value vocational learning. The reform of vocational qualifications in progress is a welcome attempt to clarify which qualifications are “high value”. The sooner these “high value” vocational qualifications are approved the sooner the many thousands of brilliant students like Zakiyah, Shah, Robyn, Natasha and Daiva can start to get due recognition for their achievements.
This is an updated version of “It’s time to really value vocational learning” from 2013