Time to celebrate

Written by Richard Griffin on 25 November 2014

I was at a conference about vocational education recently. It was the normal sort of fare -  a mix of national speakers covering policy and funding along with a range case studies, all presented via a mountain of slides. 

Two things struck me as I sat through the various presentations. Firstly, and hardly an epiphany, vocational learning is cluttered and complex. How any business manages to navigate their way through the maze of qualifications, providers and funding I have no idea. Credit to this government, they are trying to make things more straightforward, reducing the plethora of level 3 qualifications by 90 per cent for example but there is still much to do. Currently, there are 24,000 regulated qualifications. You can have too much choice! 

My second reflection was that workplace learning is too often perceived as about deficits. Recipients of vocational learning can be seen as lacking something: poor engagement with learning, low employability skills, absence of technical skills or maths and English. Now I am not suggesting for a second that there are not challenges here. The British Chamber of Commerce, amongst others, have this year highlighted the support some young people need when they first start work. Raising aspirations is essential but it struck me as I sat through twelve presentations that, as I have written before, we need to be much more positive about training and post-school learning. 

We do not present higher education in terms of 'deficit', 'lack' or 'gaps' even though young people on degree programmes can struggle to get to lectures on time, engage with the learning or complete their course. More significantly, there is a growing question mark about whether the substantial personal financial investment in degrees is actually worth it. This is one of the factors driving the growth of apprenticeships including Higher Apprenticeships and other new vocational qualifications. Employers have frequently complained that graduates do not always have the necessary functional skills for work. Yet vocational education remains the poor relation of higher education. 

But, vocational learning is coming out of the shadows, not least because of government reviews like Wolf and Whitehead and subsequent policy like Getting The Job Done. We need though to change way we talk about vocational education. The training community does need to be more positive.

It also needs to be more innovative. Too often for instance new vocational qualifications (800 applications have been submitted to SFA this year alone) are really just 'more of the same'. More fundamentally are formal qualifications always the right way to go learning wise? How much of the growth in vocational qualifications is driven by government funding rather than employer need? Are qualifications too robust? Do we have creative learning environments?  Do we create the right opportunities for people to reach their full potential?

Potential is massive. The day after the conference I attended a graduation ceremony for apprentices in London who had completed the business and administration framework, organised by SkillsCFA. This included Emily, my step-daughter, who has finished her second apprenticeship. It was great to attend an event that celebrated the achievements of everybody. Gaining an advanced apprenticeship is no mean feat particularly on top of working. Let's have more celebration of vocational learning! 

Richard Griffin is director of the Institute of Vocational Learning and Workforce Research. Richard.Griffin@bucks.ac.uk

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