Well-informed parents – key to banishing the vocational versus academic divide?

By Tami McCrone

Thursday 13 February 2014

NFER welcomes recent reports from the Edge Foundation and the Association of Colleges on the complex and massively important areas of vocational education and careers guidance. The findings come as a timely reminder of the work yet to be done to ensure that academic and vocational routes to work are perceived to be equally important, useful and valid by all.

According to the new study commissioned by the Edge Foundation: “Many young people are being actively discouraged from opting for vocational education – with just a quarter of parents (27 per cent) judging it to be worthwhile.” (Research conducted by OnePoll in January 2014, surveyed 2,230 people aged 18-35 in full time employment in the UK.)

Meanwhile, the study by the Association of Colleges (AoC) in partnership with the Skills Show states that 70 per cent of young people turn to parents and 57 per cent to teachers for careers advice.

These two findings highlight a challenge. They suggest that many young people turn to their parents for advice, and many parents feel that vocational routes are not as valuable as academic pathways.

To a certain extent these findings and observations are missing an important point – a selected pathway should depend on a young person’s interests, aspirations and preferred learning style and not on whom they happen to turn to for advice. So shouldn’t we aim for a wider appreciation of the fact that young people learn in different ways, have different interests and want to do different types of jobs?

School and college staff, and parents and carers, need to be open to and knowledgeable about the options that are available in this widening landscape. It is important that all of those from whom young people seek advice are informed about the available options or know to whom they could refer young people.

NFER wrote this in 2009 in our synthesis Widening 14-19 choices: support for young people making informed decisions. I feel that little has changed since then; 14-19 choices are still widening and young people still desperately need support to make informed decisions.

I believe a lot can still be learned from the NFER National evaluation of Diplomas. Although strictly speaking Diplomas were applied qualification, they were definitely not purely academic. Young people needed a real interest in the subject area (such as engineering or health and social care) and the qualification could lead to an associated occupation.

As part of the evaluation we wrote a paper on the careers information, advice and guidance (IAG) that young people received for Diplomas at that time. The findings are still relevant today. By drawing on the evidence we highlighted what appeared to work well in relation to:

  • the content of the information about Diplomas that young people needed to receive, e.g. the nature and role of different elements of the qualification; the applied learning style with learning in the workplace and learning through realistic work environments; the equivalence and progression routes and the different locations of learning
  • the various mechanisms through which information can be provided. Approaches such as written information; taster days; guided direction from informed adults and gaining some first-hand experience of what it would be like to study a Diploma were seen as particularly effective.
  • the people who are best placed to provide this information and the advice and guidance required to make good use of information. The report highlights the importance of having well-informed teachers for young people to turn to. That is not to say that we suggested that all teachers become experts in the details of all vocational and applied qualifications but rather that they know to whom they can reliably direct young people such as well-informed careers professionals. Additionally, as shown by AoC, parents are recognised as an important source of guidance for young people and as such need to be well-informed. The evidence demonstrated the importance of developing a clear way of describing the Diploma so that the information was accessible for learners and parents. Parents wanted to fully understand the Diploma and the implications of choosing it, in order to advise their children with confidence.

It is this last point that I particularly wanted to draw out – that young people need to have well-informed teachers, careers professionals AND parents. In an article in The Sunday Times (9 Feb. 2014): ‘Do I go to uni for three years and rack up £50,000 in debt without any work experience? No thanks, I’m going to be an apprentice’, the author points out that ‘some critics argue that more needs to be done to encourage teachers and parents to make young people aware of the alternatives to university’. I couldn’t agree more!

So perhaps we in the research community should be doing more to communicate our evidence in this area into useful resources for teachers, parents and young people?