The time was when the advice given to any young person wanting to make his or her way in the world was to learn a trade. Sadly as young people swell the ever growing ranks of the unemployed that no longer seems to be true.
According to a report written by Professor Alison Wolf hundreds of thousands of young people have been misled into taking vocational courses that are of little or no real value, this, the report claims, is largely due to the ‘perverse incentives’ that encourage colleges to steer students into taking multiple courses with no guarantee they are gaining skills that employers are looking for.
The Wolf Report recommends that funding should be provided to colleges on the number of students they enrol, rather than as now on how many qualifications each student achieves; it also calls for the majority of students to continue studying a syllabus based largely on academic subjects up to the age of sixteen.
Speaking to the BBC on the day the report was published Professor Wolf said ‘We’ve got more than half our fifteen and sixteen year olds failing to get good Maths and English at GCSE’ and called for greater emphasis to be placed on improving that basic skills that underpin both academic and vocational learning.
Responding to the report Education Secretary Michael Gove said that access to high quality vocational courses was ‘immensely valuable’ for many young people, however ‘millions of children have been misled into courses which offer little hope’ as result of the education policies of the Labour years.
The coalition government would, he said, ‘reform league tables (seen as driving colleges to grind out meaningless qualifications to boost their position), the funding system and regulation to give children honest information and access to the right courses.’
The government also plans to introduce University Technical Colleges at which students will be able to study vocational subjects from the age of fourteen and to encourage employers to work with colleges to develop apprenticeship programmes.
Providing a decent standard of vocational education is something the UK has to get right if we are to maintain our current position never mind compete effectively against the emerging Asian economies; and yet it is something we consistently get wrong. Largely due to an antiquated mindset in which vocational education is seen as ‘second division’ learning.
The real rot set in during the Thatcher years when the old manufacturing industries went to the wall and in the new services sector training was something management saw as a cost rather than an investment. Apprenticeships all but vanished and were replaced by the unloved and all but useless YTS scheme, an institution that seemed to those of us who went through it (and I did) to exist primarily to massage the figures for youth unemployment; whilst teaching the youths it employed for two years little more than how to sweep up and make the tea.
The Wolf Report should be welcomed for highlighting the need to make sure another generation doesn’t have its potential wasted in the same cavalier fashion, however they cynic in me suspects that it will be shelved by the government.
Michael Gove for all his seeming understanding of the situation is also, as his comments over recent months testify, also wedded to a vision of the education system that has more to do with bringing back mortar boards and double Latin prep than meeting the needs of young people.
By far the biggest stumbling block to the recommendations made by the Wolf report being implemented are the employers who stand to benefit most if they are. For years they have complained vociferously about the poor skills shown by school leavers whilst at the same time refusing to invest in training the next generation of workers.
In a couple of weeks time George Osborne will lay out his budget, it is rumoured that he will focus on encouraging growth above everything else, a reasonable enough tactic as the economy struggles out of recession. However if he plans to cut red tape and simplify the tax and planning laws to encourage businesses to invest shouldn’t business be expected to pay something back in return, aren’t we all in it together after all?
Surely the most appropriate thing to do would be to tie any changes to the tax system that favour business, for example, to how many training opportunities the private sector creates. That would have the long term benefit of creating the skilled workers the country needs to prosper and cutting the welfare bill in the only morally acceptable way; by giving work and wages to those young people who currently have neither.