Vocational education – a desirable choice?

By Sarah Lynch

Friday 16 October 2015

The demands from the business world could not be clearer. Employers increasingly want young recruits who have the communication, team-working and practical skills underpinned by appropriate standards of literacy and numeracy needed to thrive in the workplace.

However, John Cridland, the outgoing director of the CBI, recently stated that schools are becoming little more than “exam factories” and the focus on traditional subjects is failing to produce “rounded” individuals. He emphasised the importance of vocational, skills-based qualifications as a genuine alternative to academic learning. Vocational qualifications enable young people to gain practical skills in a specific craft, trade or occupation through providing applied hands-on work-based learning which combines theory and practice.

But just how effective and desirable are vocational qualifications and are they worth having? The NFER reviewed the research published on this topic, drawing on 16 studies and texts from as far as 2009, to examine the answer to this question.

We found that employers see vocational qualifications as vital in helping young people to develop the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Indeed, the evidence showed that vocational qualifications have a largely positive effect on learners. They have positive returns in terms of income and lead to a reduced likelihood of needing to claim benefits, because having vocational skills means learners are more likely to be in employment. Among the most successful achievers are those who achieve a Level 3 qualification, and this is possibly because they  are more likely than Level 1 and 2 students to go on to further studies. The higher returns for those studying to Level 3 suggest that young people should be encouraged and supported to progress from lower to higher levels of learning.

The review also found that achieving a qualification via a work-based learning provider can increase the probability of being in employment. This finding suggests the importance of on-the-job, practical experience. Young people with vocational qualifications develop and use their skills in a wide range of occupational sectors, including administration, sales and customer service, hospitality, skilled trades, caring and leisure, and technical employment. If the on-the-job training they receive is effective, it equips them with a variety of transferable skills, such as flexibility, to apply skills in different contexts and confidence to solve problems, which can help young people advance their careers in their chosen or another occupation.

Although learners who have achieved vocational qualifications are still less likely to go on to higher education than their peers who have studied more academic courses, such as A-levels, there are signs that this is changing. The number of vocational entrants has increased, which is having a positive effect on widening participation among the poorest learners.

These findings suggest that vocational qualifications can indeed be a desirable choice for some young people. To be an available choice, they need investment by Government, regulatory funding bodies and funding agencies, and need to be used by awarding bodies, educational providers, and businesses.

View the research report here.