The Wolf Review rips into vocational education

04 Mar 2011

The Wolf Review - commissioned by the coalition government from Professor Alison Wolf - is pretty scathing about the current vocational education offer for young people.

It is bound to annoy many who work in the sector but it is clearly the sort of message the government wanted to hear.

It says that the staple offer for between a quarter and a third  of the post-16 cohort is 'a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value'.

The review estimates that among 16-19 year olds, at least 350,000 get 'little to no benefit from the post-16 education system'.

Looking to the example of continental European education systems, Wolf believes there is a greater need to focus on the core academic skills of English and mathematics. But, the review argues, the government has created 'perverse incentives' to steer post-16 students into 'inferior alternative qualifications'.

She argues that good levels of maths and English are a 'necessary precondition ' for access to good and demanding courses and to the labour market.

Anyone who has followed Professor Wolf's writing in the past will not be surprised that her underlying theme is an argument against  what she describes as 'well-meaning attempts to pretend that everything is worth the same as everything else'. Or, in other words, the pretence (as she sees it) that vocational qualifications are worth the same as their academic equivalents.

While this view is controversial, many will nevertheless agree with her other underlying view that the whole vocational education system needs to be 'simplified dramatically'.

Her key recommendations are:

  • the government should ensure league table measures  do not give schools perverse incentives to divert low-attaining pupils onto courses and qualifications that are not recognised by employers or accepted by colleges.
  • 16-19 students in full-time education should not follow a programme which is entirely 'occupational'.
  • Programmes for the lowest attainers should concentrate on the core academic skills of English and maths.
  • Students under 19 without a good GCSE pass in English and/or maths should be required  to follow a course leading either directly to these qualifications or towards future GCSE course entry. Key Skills should not be considered a suitable qualification in this context.
  • Funding for full-time students aged 16-18 should be on a programme basis, with a given level of funding per student.
  • Employers who take on 16-18 year old apprentices should be eligible for payments, as they are bearing some of the cost of students with a right to free education.
  • Teachers qualified to teach in FE colleges should automatically be qualified to teach in schools (which is not currently the case).
  • The government should introduce a league table measure which focuses on the whole distribution of perfromance within a school, including those at both the top and bottom ends of the distribution.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, welcomed the report as "brilliant and ground-breaking”. He has immediately accepted four recommendations:

  • To allow qualified further education lecturers to teach in school classrooms on the same basis as qualified school teachers.
  • To clarify the rules on allowing industry professionals to teach in schools.
  • To allow any vocational qualification offered by a regulated awarding body to be taken by 14-to19-year-olds.
  • To allow established high-quality vocational qualifications that have not been accredited to be offered in schools and colleges in September 2011.

But the review has not gone down well with many college leaders. Ian Clinton, Principal of Blackburn College, said the findings were 'not a true reflection of practice' at colleges like his where 'courses are developed with local and national employers so that students study the skills employers want'.

The full Wolf Review can be found here:


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