Labour’s vocational vision: two-nation thinking wrapped in one-nation talk?

The Labour party wants to position itself as the party of skills and vocational education. Party leader Ed Miliband and shadow minister Liam Byrne have both made recent major speeches on this issue. Clearly, any party standing on a ‘one nation’ platform needs to develop an inclusive message on education. But does Labour understand vocational education and does it have a clear vision of the place of vocationalism within its wider ‘one nation’ vision?

These speeches place the ‘skills’ agenda almost entirely in an economic context rather than as part of a broad conception of education. A genuinely inclusive one nation programme for education needs to embrace all types of learning for all types of purpose and avoid  ‘two nation’ policies even if they are wrapped in ‘one nation’ talk.

4 key messages emerge from these speeches:

1. “For young people following the traditional academic route there has for many years been a clear path from age 14 through GCSEs to A levels and on to university. But not enough attention has been paid to the options available to young people that do not currently go to university.”

The suggestion is that the A level high road to university ain’t broken while the vocational route is not about going to university and is much neglected. While this may be true in some schools, it is absolutely not the case in colleges. Many vocational students progress to university where there is a wide range of vocational degrees on offer (see also this post)

2. “The ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ of young people face a confusing mix of vocational courses, many of which are low quality, and no clear progression from one stage of vocational education to the next.

This is to conflate the 50% who don’t go to university with those who study vocational courses, two very different groups. There is no “forgotten 50%” and the more this mantra is repeated the more silly it seems. It is not the case that “many” vocational qualifications are of low quality; the current government has addressed the issue of vocational courses of questionable value and reformed those that they are prepared to fund. The BTEC route for example is popular, successful and recognised by employers and universities. It consists of substantial qualifications at levels 1, 2 and 3 with clear and coherent progression routes. It’s really not confusing at all if one takes the trouble to find out about it.

3. “This situation is failing young people and holding back businesses that can’t get the skills they need to succeed.”

The underlying assumption is that young people’s lack of skills, rather than lack of investment, is a cause of economic stagnation and that somehow vocational education can create jobs, even in a recession. Clearly, a successful economy needs people who have a good level of education and skill and all economies experience skills shortages but is there any evidence that we can train our way out of recession? In any case, employers are generally in a better position than educators to identify and address the skills development needs of their own staff.

4. “The next Labour Government will end the culture that says the academic route is always best and vocational skills are second best, with radical reforms to our education and skills system to create a clear route for the forgotten 50 per cent of young people that do not currently go to university.”

A “clear route for the forgotten 50%” sounds dangerously like binary thinking; more ‘two nation’ than ‘one nation’. Does Labour really want to perpetuate a polar approach which treats learners as either academic or vocational?* Many of the 50% who don’t go to university will or could go later and many of the 50% who do are on a vocational route. Labour’s National Baccalaureate could become the inclusive ‘one nation’ qualification framework we need (see also here), but this will mean giving real parity to the vocational and academic elements within a single common framework for all. The shortcomings of the current two tier system will not be solved by another two tier system. This means talking up a National Bacc. for all rather than a Tech Bacc. for some.

The idea of a comprehensive post-14 curriculum for all young people could be a strong card for Labour but the party has to be careful not to fall back onto stereotypes or platitudes. Labour also needs to show some humility about the rhetoric here given that it’s own previous effort, the diploma, did not fulfil its educational or economic aims.

We need a good broad educational offer for all young people which includes practical and theoretical elements and prepares students for progression. The BIS / DfE divide in government has not been helpful, so it’s particularly important that before the next election we hear a strong joined-up message about the relationship between education for life and education for work which does justice to both the knowledge and the skills which are integral to human learning for social and economic progress.

See also here for more on Labour’s education draft manifesto for 2015

*It’s paradoxical that much of the running on the benefits of a broad liberal education for all has come from the political right while many on the left often seem content to offer vocationalism as a more ‘relevant’ response to the education needs of lower achieving students. I believe the left should settle for nothing less than an expansive, popular and democratic conception of liberal education for all which includes vocational learning and I will be writing about this further in a future post.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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