The Wolf Report on vocational education – unanswered questions

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The Wolf Report on vocational education for 14–19 year olds could prove to be one of those rare documents that marks a real turning of the tide – the point at which one educational orthodoxy starts to crumble and another begins to take shape. It is undeniably ambitious in its scope, not just tinkering with the system by which vocational education has been shaped in recent years but proposing to sweep whole swathes of it away: it really is more revolution than reform. It is also rare for such a radical report to be greeted with such acclaim by ministers – Michael Gove describing it as ‘this brilliant report’. It even rated a mention in the 2011 budget speech! In a sense it captures the ‘zeitgeist’ – the current political desire to have a bonfire of quangos, to cut regulation and red tape, and to put an end to central planning. Although clearly Alison Wolf’s own work it was also the report that Michael Gove very much wanted.

Yet despite its clarity, its ambition and its welcome, two big questions remain: will the report have traction outside the Department for Education (DfE) that commissioned it? and will the alternative approach that Wolf outlines win the support of the groups that really matter – students and employers? The official government response to the report published on 12 May indicates that all its recommendations have been accepted, and that steps will be taken to implement them between now and September 2012. However, as to the impact on adult provision and the response of learners only time will tell.

The orthodoxy that Wolf challenges has dominated government thinking about vocational education for at least 30 years. Essentially it assumes that the way to improve the quality and status of vocational education is to ask employers what they want from employees, translate those requirements into qualifications and force schools and colleges to deliver those qualifications and nothing else. To that end administrations in England have developed ever more elaborate arrangements for accessing employer opinion, gained a stranglehold over formerly independent awarding bodies and developed unprecedented mechanisms for ensuring the compliance of educational institutions with government aspirations. Wales has been dragged somewhat reluctantly behind England whereas the Scots have held firmly to a rather different path.

The trouble with this model is that it simply doesn’t work. It has been shown repeatedly that the nominal involvement of employers in the development of qualifications does not guarantee their acceptance in the labour market. Attempts to simplify vocational qualifications have ended up complicating the picture and the ever more elaborate planning and funding levers introduced to control colleges and other providers have resulted in a series of unintended outcomes and perverse behaviours. Moreover, the cost of the resulting bureaucracy, both directly and in terms of its demands on providers, has become ever more apparent.

Wolf’s response is to propose that government withdraws from the detailed regulation of qualifications, leaving it to schools and colleges to work with independent awarding bodies and real employers to develop programmes that suit learners’ needs. Government should not try to use qualification frameworks to constrain the choices of individuals, or to incentivise providers to deliver other than what real customers want. The ‘equivalence’ of qualifications should be demonstrated in the market, not asserted by officials.

The criticisms made by Wolf, while relevant to DfE, have even more resonance for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The planning and performance management of adult further education depends to an even greater extent on the regulation of qualifications than in the pre-19 phase and with equally perverse consequences. It is interesting that at the same time as ministers have dismantled Labour’s complex apparatus of regional, local and sectoral planning mechanisms officials have developed a new control system based around the eligibility of qualifications for funding.

Whether a college can support a student now depends on their age, on their employment status, on what they study and what level they study at, on the qualifications they hold and even the qualifications they aspire to reach. It further depends on whether the qualification has been defined as a ‘full’ qualification, whether it is studied at a college or in the workplace and if the latter on the size of employer. The Skills Funding Agency has sought to summarise the rules in an 80-cell matrix it revised three times between January and April 2011; but even that is insufficient since some cells are further subdivided and others expanded through footnotes.

Earlier work by Alison Wolf, such as An adult approach to FE published by LSN, suggests that she would quite happily sweep all this away as well, and that she was only constrained from saying so by the limits of her brief. Even more than those under the age of 19 she believes that adults should be trusted to consult colleges and their employers to choose the programmes that suit them best. Adults in FE should have the same sort of freedoms as they currently enjoy in the HE sector. Whitehall silos run deep, however, and there is a risk that BIS ministers will be persuaded that what makes sense for young people and for those who enter HE is for some reason not appropriate for adult FE. This would be a serious missed opportunity.

The major criticism of Wolf is that the report is stronger on what should not be done than what should take its place. She is clear (and almost certainly right) in saying that government should fund programmes of learning not qualifications but says very little about what such programmes should look like. She is again clear (and again probably right) in maintaining that improving performance in English and Maths should be the key priority for those aged 16–19 who have not already reached GCSE standard; but not very clear at all on how this is to be done. The motivation of young people, many of whom are seriously disengaged from school by the age of 14, is probably her Achilles heel.

In this context a surprising element of the report is the downplaying of vocational opportunities for pupils aged 14–16. Many in both schools and colleges are convinced from their own experience that the chance to undertake practical activities for one or two days a week can boost motivation and pupil performance across the board. Experience with the Increased Flexibility Programme (IFP) and its evaluations seem to support this view but Wolf quotes unpublished research by the Institute of Education that suggests otherwise. Specifically, she says that when matched for ability and other characteristics those undertaking vocational options are no more likely to remain in education and perform no better than those who don’t. Members of the Policy Consortium are actively seeking release of the research into the public domain to check if the matching process excluded certain variables that might help explain these apparent anomalies.

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Posted in Alison Wolf, Further Education, Michael Gove, Vocational Education