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Practically Irrelevant: ‘Vocational’ Qualifications In Schools Not Fit For Purpose

Third-rate courses wrongly presented as ‘vocational’, must go

Beneath the continuing rise in GCSE results lies a troubling truth about what is happening in schools. Forming part of the forthcoming publication, Unqualified Success: Investigating the state of vocational training in the UK, research from independent think tank Civitas finds that:

  • Students are being led away from basic academic subjects to learn how to serve drinks in Hospitality BTEC Firsts and to identify airport facilities in Travel and Tourism OCR Nationals
  • Even in compulsory academic subjects e.g. science, students are being entered for lower-level ‘vocational’ versions
  • The reputation and worth of vocational training is being heavily undermined as ‘practically irrelevant’ qualifications are mis-sold as ‘vocational’
  • Evidence suggests that an educational apartheid is underway as lower-income students are considerably more likely to be entered for sub-standard qualifications

‘It’s imperative that we put an end to the bogus versions of vocational qualifications in schools which are harming both vocational training and the education of an increasing number of students,’ commented Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education and author of the report.

Rise in ‘vocational’ qualifications

A rise in so-called ‘vocational’ qualifications being taken at school is a key contributor to the ongoing rise in GCSE results. The number of vocational qualifications (VQs) taken by school-aged students has risen dramatically, the most commonly taken known as ‘vocationally related qualifications’ (VRQs). As Edge, the vocational training campaign group states:

‘Vocationally-Related Qualifications (VRQs), such as Edexcel BTECs, City & Guilds and OCR Nationals. VRQs generally test knowledge of (or gained in) an occupational area rather than the full range of skills needed to do a particular job.’

In 2008, 311,000 VRQs were taken by 14-16 year-olds. The current system of ‘equivalence’ at GCSE means that one of these vocational qualifications can be worth up to four A*-C GCSEs in the league tables – greatly incentivising their uptake in schools.

Designed for weak students

Yet, despite their value in the league tables, all too often a bogus vocational training route is being used simply as a way to take lower achievers off academic subjects.

‘The bottom sets and vocational qualification students correlate completely. You never encourage the top people to do vocational qualifications. To give an example there was a really bright girl last year who is a fantastic cricketer who really wanted to do BTEC Sport because of the coaching and hands on element. She wasn’t allowed to because the school wanted her to do academic subjects.’ English teacher, South-East London, August 2010

As a Hertfordshire school warns, the official ‘equivalence’ of vocational qualifications at GCSE is no guarantee for students even within the education system:

‘Officially a BTEC at MVC [Melbourn Village College] could be worth 2 or 4 GCSEs depending on the number of modules taken. In reality, Sixth Form Centers [sic] do not treat it as such… As a rule of thumb halve the official number i.e. the BTEC First Diploma is officially worth 4 GCSEs but is often treated by Sixth Forms as being worth 2’.Melbourn Village College, 2010 Key Stage 4 Options Information Booklet

Worse still, James Fothergill, Head of Education and Skills at the CBI, reveals that:

‘Some [VQs] may even have negative returns by flagging young people up as weak.’August 2010

Practically irrelevant

BTEC First Certificates and Diplomas and OCR Nationals are the two ‘suites’ of vocationally related qualifications most commonly taken in schools.

Below are the learning outcomes from a unit in the Level 2 BTEC First Certificate in Hospitality, ‘Serving Food and Drink’:

‘The aim of this unit is for learners to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding of serving food and drink…The learners will serve food and drink to customers using a range of methods and equipment. They will also learn the presentation and personal skills, including being polite to customers, which are necessary for efficient and effective food and drink service…’

Because these qualifications are neither vocational nor academic, they are of very questionable value.

‘They [students who have completed a BTEC First Certificate in Hospitality] are not equipped to perform in the industry. All that time being at school is such a huge waste of resources on all sides.’ Herbert Berger, Michelin starred chef and restaurateur

Below are the learning outcomes from a unit in the OCR Nationals Level 2 Travel and Tourism, ‘Investigating Airports’:

‘By completing this unit candidates will develop knowledge and understanding of the key characteristics of the airport and airline sectors and the facilities and services offered. They will develop an understanding of the main health, safety and security issues and consider employment opportunities within these sectors.’

In this mandatory unit, from Level 2 BTEC First Certificate in Children’s Care, Learning and Development, ‘Communication with Children and Adults’ students learn that:

‘Communication is central to all work with children. It occurs on a constant basis in all child care settings. Communication occurs between children, between workers, between children and workers, between workers and families and between workers and other adults. When interacting with children, communication needs to be tailored to the age and development of the child.

And the learning outcomes from a unit in OCR Nationals Level 2 Public Services ‘Investigating Public Services in the UK’:

‘By completing this unit candidates will gain an insight into the work undertaken by the uniformed public services. It will enable the candidate to understand the range of job types available and conditions of service. Candidates will understand the entry requirements and selection process for a specified job.’

One area of work this OCR Nationals qualification purports to prepare for is the armed services – to which a serving Lieutenant responds:

‘You have to ask, what is the opportunity cost of focusing so heavily on these courses? Not only maths, the sciences and IT but also the arts form a foundation of knowledge that make soldiers more employable, and therefore more deployable… I would certainly advise anyone considering a career in the military that they are better served by a solid academic foundation…’ First Lieutenant Pete Quentin, JSAA Team OIC

Impoverished curriculum

Most alarmingly, the evidence strongly suggests that poorer students are more likely to be entered for vocational courses at school. With low attainment and entry for vocational qualifications going hand in hand, the socioeconomic achievement gap implies that youngsters from deprived backgrounds are significantly more likely to forfeit academic GCSEs.

Evidencing this, research from the London School of Economics looking at 2006 GCSE and equivalent results found that students from schools with the most disadvantaged intakes were five to six times more likely to enter examinations other than full GCSEs, such as GNVQs. The GNVQ’s main successor qualifications today are BTEC Firsts and OCR Nationals.

The most recent evidence of a relationship between socioeconomic intake and VQ uptake comes from data on academies, which to date have catered disproportionately for low-income students. In the last available results, 18% of mainstream maintained school entries at GCSE were in ‘vocational’ qualifications; in academies, by contrast, this figure is nearly double, with 34% of all academy entries in ‘vocational’ equivalents.

Disunited learning

Most striking, however, is the example of the academy chain which also runs private schools, the United Learning Trust. The United Learning Trust and its parent organisation the United Church Schools Trust describe themselves as ‘a family of independent schools and academies’. The assumption might be that the organisation has the same educational ethos and standards for its private and state schools. However, there is a very stark difference between the curriculum provided in the UCST private schools, and the curriculum provided in the ULT state sector academies. Whilst every single academy is doing vocational qualifications at GCSE, in some cases constituting over 65 per cent of all entries at GCSE, in the UCST private schools just one school is supplementing their GCSEs with just one ‘equivalent’.

In those schools for which results are available, all but one of the private schools run by the organisation has a 100% GCSE entry rate – and the one exception, Arnold School, has a 99% GCSE entry rate. When it comes to the organisation’s academies, by contrast, not one has a 100% GCSE entry rate and nine out the 15 have a GCSE rate of less than 70%. Four ULT academies are doing less than 50% GCSEs.

ULT has previously faced controversy, with Ofsted serving three of its academies notices to improve. Notably, however, Ofsted has applauded rather than criticised these academies’ use of vocational qualifications. For example, with reference to Sheffield Springs Academy Ofsted states:

‘There is an improving picture at Key Stage 4 where students are now making satisfactory progress. The introduction of vocational courses two years ago is bearing fruit. These courses, coupled with a strong drive to improve students’ performance in English and mathematics, are having a significant impact on standards and achievement at Key Stage 4.’

‘We may no longer have a divided grammar/secondary modern school system, but instead an even less democratic, income-based divide appears to be developing,’ commented Anastasia de Waal. ‘In order to fully assess the situation, Civitas is in the process of obtaining a breakdown of all qualifications at GCSE level, by socioeconomic background.’

Forfeiting basic education

Employers in vocational work, who clearly have a vested interest in vocational training, insist that tomorrow’s trainees need to acquire the basics at school.

‘Pupils must have a minimum level of literacy, numeracy and science. Those things are absolutely vital for the craft areas. This is not something which schools are currently succeeding at and moving weakly performing school pupils onto non-academic courses is only exacerbating this. If the basics are not successfully tackled at primary school, then rather than siphoning weak pupils off into vocational qualifications at 14, the focus should be on securing literacy and numeracy.’ Martin McEvoy, Director, electrical engineering company Imtech Meica, August 2010

The greatest concern when it comes to vocational equivalents at GCSEs is that young people are forfeiting basic education by taking them. As the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust have acknowledged, vocational qualifications taken at 14 are a ‘risk’ ‘particularly as they take up a large proportion of a student’s KS4 programme. Each starts to prepare the student for work in a broad vocational area, when he/she could be continuing with general education for longer’.

Crucially, however, it is not just ‘optional’ academic subjects such as history and modern foreign languages which are being forfeited: academic foundations are also being lost in compulsory science and ICT. In these two subjects ‘vocational’ versions are being offered to weaker students. ‘Vocational’ entails watered-down ‘work-related’ learning such as ‘investigating a crime scene’, rather than gaining basic scientific knowledge and process.

As Ofsted has noted – and endorsed – replacing academic science and ICT courses with ‘vocational’ versions is an effective way of boosting achievement. With reference to another of the United Learning Trust academies, Accrington Academy, the inspectorate notes:

‘Low attainment in science has been tackled by widening the range of science courses, including a vocational course.’

Whilst there has been much debate over the availability of triple sciences at GCSE, for many weaker students science GCSEs are not on offer at all:

‘Triple science is reserved for the clever students, the middle do core science and the bottom BTEC. Core subject teachers, like the science teachers, who have to teach vocational qualifications dread it.’ English teacher, South-East London, August 2010

A scenario driven by league-table equivalence – which at least one student on the website The Student Room sees as unfair:

‘The lower sets in my school also do ocr national science which they all find very easy. Does that mean their distinctions will be equal to my hard earnt [sic] A in science?’
nasira372, March 2010

Devastating vocational training – as well as opportunities

Criticism of vocational qualifications at GCSE is often shot down as ‘elitist’. What in fact is elitist is a status quo in which academic subjects are reserved for the high performers and in which qualifications which bear no resemblance to true vocational training are allowed to pass as ‘vocational’.

‘Those defending qualifications mis-sold as vocational, in which you learn not skills but random bits of information tenuously connected to an area of work, are simply exposing their very low regard for vocational training,’ commented Anastasia de Waal.

Ending ‘equivalence’ insufficient

The Coalition Government’s remedy for the ‘use’ of weak qualifications to boost A*-C performance at GCSE is a plan to scrap equivalence. However, sub-standard qualifications should not be on offer in schools at all.

If the status of vocational training is to improve, the first thing which needs to be done is to axe all practically irrelevant vocational qualifications. The way that vocational training is set up at school today is devastating for the status of vocational skills. Why would a bright youngster think vocational work was something worth going into when the message at school is so clearly the reverse?

An independent commission working in tandem with employers is required to evaluate all qualifications under the auspices of ‘vocational’ education currently available to school-aged students.

‘Ofqual, which has just re-accredited the OCR Nationals, is evidently not up to the job,’ concluded Anastasia de Waal.

A breakdown of vocational qualifications by student characteristics, as well as a comprehensive list of qualifications not fit for purpose, will be published by Civitas inUnqualified Success.

Notes for Editors

i. For more information contact Civitas on 0207 7996677

ii. Unqualified Success will be released in the Autumn

iii. Civitas is an independent think tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.


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