Is ‘parity of esteem’ the right goal for vocational education?

In a major speech to the CBI in Cambridge recently (18th November 2014), the Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw told his audience that there is a need to establish “parity of esteem” between the traditional academic route and vocational education.  

Sir Wilshaw added that, with the economy improving and cross-party agreement on the need for more high-quality apprenticeships, “We have never had a better opportunity to tackle our lamentable record on vocational education, but only if we seize this moment and only if employers play their part.”  

The Holy Grail at the end of this call to action, which of course is something we have heard issued by many policy makers and politicians before Sir Wilshaw, is to get vocational education in this country on a par with that of countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Norway.  

It is this crucial last point - the positive vision of what we want our vocational education system to look like - that leads me to conclude that the notion of “parity of esteem” is the wrong focus for our attention.  The fundamental issue is not, ultimately, how we compare academic learning on the one hand with vocational education, including apprenticeships, on the other.  

The real issue is about how our vocational education relates to the world of work and our current and future workforce requirements in all sectors of the economy.  If we get that right, by ensuring that all vocational education is of high quality, is up-to-date with current and (expected) future industry practice, and provides the skills and work-readiness that employers are looking for, then vocational education will soon enough come to be seen as being of equal value to the academic route.

Here in Norfolk we have some truly excellent vocational education and training of which we can be rightly proud.  Take a look at the outstanding training for (and developed in close conjunction with) the hospitality and catering industry provided by the Hotel School at City College Norwich; or look at the unique work that University Technical College Norfolk is doing with employers including Lotus, Future Marine Services, Gardline, KLM UK Engineering, CLS Offshore and ST Racing to train the next generation engineers for the energy and advanced manufacturing sectors, to name just two examples.  But we need to ensure that this link to the world of work is consistently strong and clear for all vocational education.  

This is where I can wholeheartedly agree with Sir Wilshaw: employers are central to the solution.  We need employer engagement to be at the forefront of all future reforms to vocational education; we need to ensure that we continue to promote the many fantastic career opportunities that are available through Apprenticeships; and we need to make sure that all vocational training has a ‘clear line of sight’ to the employment opportunities that are available at the end of it.

Sir Wilshaw ended his CBI speech with a three-fold challenge to employers:

  1. Could you do more to train people here rather than recruiting from abroad?
  2. How much do you do to make young people in schools aware of all the different types of work in your company? Have you made a sustained effort to engage with schools and colleges and let them know what opportunities you offer?  
  3. What would it take to turn a job vacancy into an Apprenticeship?

My colleagues and I in the TEN Group would be very happy to talk with you about how we could work together on any or all of these points.  

Pictured: Students at UTC Norfolk combine academic and vocational learning, with strong employer involvement in the curriculum. Year 12 students recently visited a SeaJacks self-propelled jack-up vessel, the Leviathan, as part of their learning about off-shore engineering.