Vocational education is just as important as academic

In her Party Conference speech, Justine Greening said the education system needed to give children three things – knowledge and skills, the right advice and great life experiences.

The theme of ‘opportunity’ dominated her narrative – announcing six Opportunity Areas – and helps to nail the colours of the Conservative Party firmly to the social mobility mast.

The Edge Foundation was founded with the ambition of raising the status of practical and technical learning, long seen as the recourse for those deemed not academically bright, so Ms Greening’s assertion that she is ‘determined to put the quality of technical education on a par with the quality of our academic education’ is welcome. 

Hopefully it will signal a move towards parity of status between technical/professional learning and academic routes. As university fees rise and evidence of the ‘graduate premium’ looks increasingly questionable, apprenticeships and technical routes are now first choice options for many young people looking for pathways into rewarding and well-remunerated careers or higher education, without the burden of student debt. 

Which brings us to the need for the ‘right advice’ and the narrow, poorly funded and poor quality career advice and information on offer. Without resource for careers guidance staff, many schools are left dependent on teachers whose knowledge of apprenticeships, further education or vocational routes is inevitably quite limited. 

Edge’s key policy call for a ‘gold standard’ careers information, advice and guidance service is supported by our Career Footsteps campaign, which delivers first-hand insight from professionals with experience of technical learning routes, directly to young people in the classroom.

Which brings us to employers who have a vital role in shaping our curricula and their future workforce. The ‘great life experiences’ Ms Greening refers to should mean more than happy school day memories. Profound employer engagement builds a young person’s confidence, helps them to make informed choices about their future and generally improves attainment and progression. There is tangible evidence that each time someone aged 14-16 engages with an employer, for example via a talk, work experience or site visit, it adds 1.6% on to their salary 10 years into their career.

In April the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility reported that the inequality between academic and vocational education is unfair, restricts social mobility and fails to meet the UK’s economic needs. Edge looks forward to Ms Greening’s ambitions being matched by funding and resource to create those opportunities. Only then will our education system begin to become a driver for equality of access and opportunity.

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