Conor Ryan asks can we ever get vocational education right in England

This week, the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee called for apprenticeships to be seen as equal to study at university.

As the Committee noted in a hard-hitting report, the problem under successive governments has been a focus on the quantity of qualifications rather than their quality. Many of the old Train to Gain qualifications were effortlessly rebranded as apprenticeships. This has fed an attitude in England that sees the vocational as inferior.

In their report, the MPs argue: “There remains an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route. This is wrong and must be changed.”

They make a host of practical suggestions, including giving the academic and the vocational route equal prominence in careers advice, as well as useful reforms to the apprenticeship system.

But the problem is surely rather more fundamental in Britain. Vocational education is too often seen not only as something for those with few GCSEs, but also treated in a narrow sense that owes more to the world of 50 years ago than Britain today.

Yet a true vocational system should be about preparing people not only for crafts and trades, but for careers in business and the professions. Martin Doel, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argued in an Institute for Public Policy Research pamphlet last year that we should create a master craftsmen role – akin to the Germanmeister – in the UK apprenticeship programme, something that would certainly help to change perceptions.

Indeed, in Germany, apprenticeships are not simply seen as being as good as a university education; in many careers they are seen as superior.

There are two important aspects to the German system that set it apart. The first is that it has a long tradition of very high standards policed by business and the professions in a way that the Sector Skills Councils have never really been able to emulate here.

The second – more troubling aspect for some – is that they depend very heavily on a system of licensing that appears anathema in our more open economy. As Bagehot in the Economist has put it: “The bedrock of Germany’s apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice.”

In his speech to the Sutton Trust social mobility summit last May, the opposition leader Ed Miliband first introduced his ideas of the ‘forgotten 50%’ – those young people who don’t go to university, but for whom learning a trade or a craft used to be a strong vehicle for social mobility. He said:

“I also want to challenge some of the assumptions about social mobility. A few months ago I met a group of apprentices working at Jaguar Land Rover. They told me how lucky they felt to be working on racing car prototypes. They had found a path into a really exciting job. One where they would be trained, stretched and expected to make use of their talent.

“They were at the beginning of a career.  One which will lead to better wages, better prospects and a better life than perhaps their parents had. But they told me they felt they were the lucky few…In Germany, middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships. But in Britain, too often people think that if they don’t go to university, they are written off by society.”

Ed Miliband was right to say that social mobility must be about more than a good university education for those who should be able to benefit from it. It should also be about ambitious apprenticeships, top-class technical education and pre-eminent professional training.

That is why the Sutton Trust will be working with the Boston Consulting Group in the months ahead to investigate whether there are lessons we can learn from abroad that have an application here.

Of course, we will look at Germany. But, while the strengths in quality of German vocational education may well outweigh its corporatism, we accept that many aspects of a German system with a tradition that stretches back to Bismarck may not be so easy to import.

So we will also look at Singapore, a country with a similar exam system to Britain that has revamped its poorly regarded vocational system since 1992 through the creation of the Institute for Technical Education (ITE).

According to the OECD, the ITE has transformed the content, quality and image of vocational education. Enrolment has doubled and ITE students now constitute about 25% of the post-secondary cohort. Pay levels and job prospects for ITE graduates are also strong.

We’ll keep you posted on what we learn.

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