The latest report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility runs to over 100 pages and makes some worthy points. However, it seems to support the idea that education in itself can improve mobility and fairness in the labour market while at the same time saying little about what kind of 14-19 curriculum it feels young people should be entitled to.
The full title of the report is: Overlooked and left behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people and the take-home message seems to be that although the vital transition from school to work works well for many young people, the majority are ‘trapped’ in poor quality and under-valued routes which can be the start of ‘a lifetime of poverty’.
The core assumption of this report is a re-heated version of the ‘forgotten 50%’ thesis which argued that students who are not following A-level programmes are hopelessly confused by the complex and incoherent options available to them and end up neglected and failing to progress to higher education or training.
This is simply not the case.
The myth of the ‘overlooked majority’
Some politicians may be ‘confused’ by vocational courses but most 16 year olds are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of a specialist full time vocational course which equips them with the knowledge and skill to be able to progress in a particular sector, including to degree courses at university. Given high quality information and advice, they choose to follow these courses in significant numbers.
Data on university admissions from UCAS show that there has been a strong increase in the number of students with advanced vocational qualifications progressing to undergraduate degrees. This figure almost doubled from 2008 to 2015 while the numbers with A-levels only has remained fairly steady. This is hardly a story of educational failure or neglect for the two thirds of 16 and 17 year olds on advanced programmes.
Those young people on vocational courses at advanced level are not overlooked by those colleges which advise and guide them, teach them and help them progress, they are not overlooked by the Education Funding Agency which funds their programmes of study in the same way as A-levels and they are not overlooked by the universities which accept them onto degree courses or the employers who offer them jobs. One place they are overlooked is in Figure 3 of this report (page 16) which completely omits to mention advanced vocational courses followed by 19% of the cohort.
If we turn the spotlight onto the 17.5% of this age group on level 2 and level 1 courses, it’s worth noting that, although these qualifications have relatively little stand-alone value in the labour market, they are essential stepping stones towards advanced level qualifications. We have much evidence that this works, perhaps not for everyone, but there’s not that much evidence of neglect here either. If we also discount those young people who are in work based learning and have by definition made a transition to work, it turns out that the ‘overlooked majority’ probably amounts to little more than 11%.
There are many problems and inequities in the youth labour market where too few skilled jobs or apprenticeships are available, where employers tend to favour those applicants with the highest level qualifications, whether or not they are appropriate, and where too few employers are prepared to invest in training and progression. However, education is not responsible for the fragility of the labour market.
There are also many problems with England’s binary qualification system of post-16 academic and vocational pathways, but the ‘overlooked majority’ / ‘forgotten 50%’ narrative misses the target by a mile and does nothing to help us understand the issues.
The report makes 8 main recommendations, most of which are about being more joined-up and better informed about how well the system is working – effectively ‘parenthood and apple-pie’ proposals. It also rightly highlights the ‘stark funding differences’ between pre- and post-16 funding which ‘underpin a system of inequality’. In particular, it points out that ‘two years is not enough time for some young people to acquire the necessary [advanced] qualifications’ and criticises the ‘aspiration tax’ which leaves those full time 18 year olds who most need education as the lowest funded age group. If anyone qualifies as ‘overlooked’ it is this group.
The key recommendation:
1. More coherence in government policy, with a framework for school to work transitions from 14 to 19 and beyond.
Media coverage of the report concentrated on the proposal to end the national curriculum at 14 and this is the ‘big idea’; an overarching 14-19 ‘transition’ stage consisting of a common core curriculum containing ‘Life Skills’ plus specialist options as part of a ‘coherent and navigable transition system for 14-24 year olds’ supported by better advice and guidance.
Paragraph 39 of the summary of recommendations says: ‘this stage should include a core curriculum with tailor-made academic and/or vocational courses.’ Ann Hodgson is quoted saying how odd it is that “we have no educational aims and purposes for the 16-19 phase” and that she and Ken Spours have found that “a mix of general and vocational education had a highly motivating effect.”
So far so good. However, paragraph 22 of the same summary describes the proposed pathways as being either academic or vocational (a ‘tailor-made route to work’). That or suggests some kind of academic / vocational divide at 14 which is not compatible with a common curriculum entitlement for all students which includes general and vocational options, maintains breadth and avoids excessively early specialisation.
It is far from clear where the report stands on the question of pathways from 14 and it isn’t nit-picking to ask whether it is saying or or and/or? It wants to ‘move away from age 16 being the cut-off point at which many people embark on the wrong path’ without saying how to avoid recreating this problem at 14.
The other recommendations:
2. Improved careers education in schools to empower young people to make good choices for themselves.
We need action to guarantee a high standard of careers education and guidance for all young people. Instead we are offered a dreaded ‘gold-standard’. The report also suggests that we should rely more on data on employment returns on qualifications and local labour market information without any evidence that this actually helps young people get jobs.
3. A single Cabinet-level minister to lead on this transition framework
Presumably this ‘transition framework’ is the same thing as the 14-19 ‘transition stage’, not a very inspiring title for this important 5-year phase of education. Perhaps it should be seen as having value in its own right rather than simply being defined in terms of where it leads.
4. More data to support research on transitions from school to work.
‘More data’ is never a bad thing, but we must beware of using labour market and earnings data to shape the curriculum and divert us from the educational purpose of this phase.
5. The responsible cabinet minister to report to parliament annually on progress.
After all, nothing says ‘we are not overlooking you’ more persuasively than an annual Commons statement…
6. Government to co-ordinate the efforts of existing structures and bodies; colleges, schools, local authorities, LEPs and employers.
This could have been an opportunity to argue for elected regional authorities to lead on 14-19 education, possibly picking up from the post-16 area reviews once they have made their recommendations. Instead this could be a recipe for multi-agency talking shops with little accountability or incentive to do much.
7. Keep the success of transitions into work for those ‘in the middle’ and give the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission a role in monitoring these transitions.
8. Commission a cost-benefit analysis of increasing funding for careers education in school in the context of social mobility.
This seems to suggest that it’s only worth investing in good careers guidance if we can demonstrate that it yields tangible financial benefits. Good luck with that…meanwhile provision remains highly variable and many students are losing out.
The report identifies some of the big challenges and provides some useful analysis. But overall it is something of a disappointment because despite its length and numerous sources it fails to flesh out its one big idea; the 14-19 ‘transition’ stage. This is a pity as our post-16 curriculum and qualification system is in urgent need of coherence and the resources to support it.
Perhaps over in the other house, the Commons Education Select Committee will have something more substantial to say about this when it reports on its inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England. Let’s hope so because it’s high time to move on from the narrative of neglect to one of entitlement, parity and equality.
Is vocational education in England really inadequate? (January 2016)
Let’s celebrate vocational success! (January 2016)
5 vocational myths to avoid (March 2015)
Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)
Guess what? Vocational students go to university too (March 2014)