- The idea that there should be a 14-19 ‘continuum’ grew in response to the increased number of students staying on in post-16 education from the 1980s. There was a growing consensus that a coherent integrated system of education could be established which incorporated academic and vocational learning within a single qualifications framework. A key development was the Tomlinson Report of 2004 which proposed that existing qualifications should be subsumed into a general diploma. 1 New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 had not gone nearly as far, but it did modularise existing academic and vocational qualifications at post-16, increasing student choice. 2
- The Coalition and now the Conservative government have broken this consensus and moved in the other direction. They have emphasised the importance of particular academic qualifications - those that make up the English Baccalaureate. Schools must concentrate on the EBacc subjects (which will become a curriculum requirement for 2020) if they are to be able to meet league table requirements from 2016. 3
- Emphasising the importance of the EBacc GCSE’s also fits well with the notion of ‘Facilitating A-levels’ – a list of eight subject areas from which Russell universities generally require applicants to have at least two. Like the division between EBacc and non-EBacc GCSEs, ‘Facilitating A-levels’ are another example of attempts to establish a hierarchy of subjects but with those like sociology and psychology, which are increasingly popular, left out.
- The new GCSEs and A-levels which are now being introduced into schools are also based on a narrow examination system which emphasises linear end-of-course examinations rather than modular learning, with coursework opportunities no longer available. It is expected that it will be harder to secure the equivalent of the current GCSE C ‘pass’. The NUT argues that rather than recognise young people’s achievements, the purpose is to ‘ration’ success.
- The Coalition and the Conservatives have been particularly harsh on vocational qualifications which in recent years have become an integral part of the KS4 curriculum. Until now they have been included in school league tables, counting as multiple GCSEs. As a result, many schools made them part of the curriculum for students who had chosen academic courses.
- The 2011 Wolf Review 4 criticised lower level vocational qualifications for lacking ‘rigour’ and recommended vocational learning should be limited to no more than 20% of the curriculum offer at KS4. To be included in new league tables, vocational qualifications have to meet strict requirements in relation to their content and the type of assessment they use. As a result, the BTEC style qualifications, favoured by many teachers, which have encouraged a style of learning enjoyed by students no longer exist –at least in their traditional format.
- Advanced Level vocational qualifications have continued to be used for entry to higher education however - with UCAS data showing a quarter of English applicants to HE having at least one vocational qualification 5 - even if most of these applications were to the ‘new’ universities, rather than elite institutions.
- The Government supports apprenticeships as an alternative to academic learning for 16-18 year olds, but the quality of current UK apprenticeships is far removed from those in Germany and other parts of Europe, where workplace training is combined with an entitlement to technical and general education. In the UK, despite David Cameron’s promise of 3 million more apprenticeships by 2020, the government’s own figures show that over half of new apprenticeship starts are at level 2 – equivalent to GCSE a standard many young people have already reached. 6
- Apprenticeship figures 7 show that over a quarter are started by people over 25, generally existing workers who have been reclassified to allow employers to claim government funding. In 2014/15 out of over 450 000 starts just under 30 000 were by 16 year olds began apprenticeships and around 40 000 by 17 year olds.
- As a result of the above changes, it is becoming increasingly recognised that opportunities for many young people –already faced with declining employment prospects–to receive a broad, relevant and good quality education have been seriously reduced. The CBI for example, considers schools have become ‘exam factories’ 8 and that high stakes assessment at 16 is an anachronism, while Ofsted’s chief Michael Wilshaw has criticised a ‘one size fits all’ secondary education (Speech to Centre Forum January 2016. 9)
- Like Lord (Kenneth) Baker who continues to promote University Technology Colleges UTCs 10), Wilshaw has proposed vocational specialisation for those not able to succeed on the academic track. He argues that the existence of a strong vocational track in Germany is the reason why youth unemployment is lower. In Germany however, the youth labour market is also much stronger, so new economic policies would have to be introduced, if the UK were to emulate it. 11 Without such policies, ‘reform ‘ would more likely represent a return to the tripartite divisions of the 1944 Education Act.
- The NUT in line with its policy statements, the 1996 Road to Equality, and the 2005 14-19 Bringing Down the Barriers continues to oppose the EBacc and to work with a broad range of partners to develop and promote an alternative 14-19 curriculum, which provides a real entitlement to a variety of learning experience, including a strong core and as the job structure continues to change, without the need for excessive specialisation at an early age. 12 This is the best way to equip young people to confront the difficult social and economic uncertainties they now face.
1 Tomlinson Report (2004) 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform. London: DES. More here.
2 Hodgson, A. and Spours, K. (2003) Beyond A Levels: Curriculum 2000 and the reform of 14-19 qualifications. London: Kogan Page
3 House of Commons Library (2016) English Baccalaureate Briefing Paper 06045 3rd March. London: House of Commons. More here.
4 Review of Vocational Education. The Wolf Report (2011) London: BIS. More here.
5 More here.
6 See Allen M (2016) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real alternative fort Young People? More here.
7 Allen, op.cit.
8 See here.
9 See here.
10 Baker, K. (2013) 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education Continuum
11 Solga,H. Protsch, P. Ebner,C. and Brzinsky-Fay, C. (2014) The German Vocational and Training System: its institutional configuration, strengths and challenges. Discussion Paper. Berlin: WZB Berlin Social Science Center. https://bibliothek.wzb.eu/pdf/2014/i14-502.pdf
12 NUT (2005) Bringing Down the Barriers London: National Union of Teachers. More here.