Press release

Wolf Review proposes major reform of vocational education

The Department has published Prof Alison Wolf's review of vocational education calling for a fresh approach to a range of qualifications.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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  • 300,000- 400,000 16- to 19-year-olds doing courses of little value
  • Those who fail to get a ‘C’ in English and maths GCSE must continue to study those subjects

The independent Wolf Review into vocational education, commissioned by Education Secretary Michael Gove, is published today.

Professor Alison Wolf analyses how millions of children have been failed over the past twenty years and sets out a blueprint for a very different system in which almost all young people have the chance of further education or a good job.

  • Many 14- to 16-year-olds are on courses which the league table systems encourage but which lead children into dead-ends. Many young people have not been told the truth about the consequences of their choice of qualification.
  • A quarter to a third (300,000 - 400,000) of 16- to 19-year-olds are on courses which do not lead to higher education or good jobs.
  • High-quality apprenticeships are too rare and an increasing proportion are being offered to older people not teenagers.
  • There are many good quality courses and institutions but they exist “in spite of” the current funding and regulatory system. Attempts to fix the system over the past decade have failed. For example, the Diploma was intended to solve the long-term problem but did not (there has been less than one per cent take-up).
  • 45 per cent of the cohort did not get a ‘C’ in GCSE English and maths at 16 and very few (four per cent) of those who fail then go on to achieve this from 16 to 19.
  • There has been a growing crisis in the youth labour market for years.

Professor Wolf recommends a radical change of direction.

There are four main principles for reform:

  • The system must stop ‘tracking’ 14 to 16 year olds into ‘dead-end’ courses.
  • The system must be made honest so young people are not pushed into damaging decisions.
  • The system must be dramatically simplified to remove perverse incentives.
  • We should learn best practice from countries doing things better than us, such as Denmark, France and Germany.

The proposals include:

  • Ensuring anyone who fails to achieve at least a ‘C’ in GCSE English or maths must continue to study those subjects post-16. This would apply to about half the annual cohort.
  • Removing the perverse incentives, created by the funding system and performance tables, to enter students for low-quality qualifications. High quality vocational qualifications can and should be identified by the Government. Only those qualifications - both vocational and academic - that meet stringent quality criteria should form part of the performance management regime for schools. However, schools should also be free to offer whatever other qualifications they wish from regulated awarding bodies.
  • Making performance measures reinforce the commitment to a common core of study at Key Stage 4, with vocational specialisation normally confined to 20 per cent of a pupil’s timetable; and should remove incentives for schools to pile up large numbers of qualifications for ‘accountability’ reasons.
  • Making funding on a per-student basis post-16 as well as pre-16.
  • Regulation moving away from qualification accreditation towards oversight of awarding bodies.
  • Removal of the obligation for qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds to be part of the Qualifications and Credit Framework.
  • Increasing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for maths teachers.
  • Allowing 14 to 16 year olds to be enrolled in colleges so they can benefit from high-quality vocational training available there.
  • Employers being directly involved in quality assurance and assessment activities at local level, which is the most important guarantor of high quality vocational provision.
  • Recognising that high quality apprenticeships offer great opportunities but there are problems with the system. The Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills must work together to fix the funding and other problems.
  • Subsidising employers if they offer 16 to 18 year old apprentices high-quality, off-the-job training, and an education with broad transferable elements.

Professor Wolf, launching her report today at Westminster Kingsway College in London, alongside Mr Gove, said:

The system is complex, expensive and counterproductive. We have had twenty years of micromanagement and mounting bureaucratic costs. The funding and accountability systems create perverse incentives to steer students into inferior courses. We have many vocational qualifications that are great and institutions which are providing an excellent education and are heavily oversubscribed. But we also have hundreds of thousands of young people taking qualifications that have little or no value.

We must change course to give everyone a fair chance of a good education and a good job. Getting at least a ‘C’ in English and maths GCSE is absolutely vital for a young person’s future education and employment so those subjects should be compulsory for 16 to 19 year olds who have not achieved this. A lesson from abroad is that 14 to 16 year-olds should spend 80 per cent of their time on a shared academic core of subjects.

Mr Gove said Prof Wolf’s report was “brilliant and ground-breaking”. He 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.

Michael Gove said he would now consider how best to implement Professor Wolf’s remaining recommendations.

He said:

The system that we have inherited is very damaging. It is unfair for children and it is harming the economy. Millions of children have been misled into pursuing courses which offer little hope.

We will reform league tables, the funding system, and regulation to give children honest information and access to the right courses.

Implementing these reforms will be hard and take a few years but we cannot afford another decade of educational failure.

Andy Wilson, Principal of Westminster Kingsway College, in London, said:

Westminster Kingsway College welcomes the publication of Alison Wolf’s eagerly awaited report. We are pleased that in taking an early decision to review vocational education, the coalition Government has recognised its importance to both short term economic recovery and the future of the country’s young people. The careful and considered analysis Professor Wolf has provided further enhances the importance of the vocational curriculum and recognises the position of further education colleges at the heart of its delivery.

Westminster Kingsway has a 100 year history of providing high quality vocational education for young people across London and is proud to host today’s launch event. Of course, our provision has evolved to reflect changing labour market needs and Government policy but has also provided the continuity that both young people and employers rely on. We will continue to respond to the priorities identified in Professor Wolf’s report and to provide routes for increasing numbers of young people to succeed as they progress directly to sustainable careers or HE.

Andy Palmer, head of skills at BT, said:

We require strong literacy and numeracy but all too often it is these key skills - particularly the ability to deploy them in the workplace - that cause our young recruits so many problems and requires investment from us.

We continually hear about the need for parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications but this masks the fact that they are different products with different outputs. Our senior management roles are populated by former apprentices and graduates alike.

Ali Hadawi CBE, Principal of Central Bedfordshire College, said:

The changes wrought over recent years have seen a systematic de-skilling of the quality of provision with the emphasis on achievement of a qualification being primary and the dumbing-down of the content, quality and rigour.

Sally Lowe, 14-19 partnership manager at Education Leeds on behalf of the 11-19 (25) Learning & Support Partnership, said:

There needs to be a single funding mechanism for 14-19. The awarding bodies used to have far more of a ‘hands on’ approach to ensuring the quality of delivery of vocational qualifications in centres. This has been eroded over the past 10 years and means that delivery centres are less accountable.

Awarding organisations needs to review existing Quality Assurance and implement more rigour to centre approval.

Phil Dover, Principal of Lees Brook Community Sports College, in Derby, said:

Some schools have used the flexibility in the assessment process to enable students to gain qualifications and accreditation too easily. The procedure needs to be changed by making the external verification process more rigorous.

Pete Birkett, chief executive of Barnfield Federation in Luton, said:

I welcome this report. I’m pleased that Alison Wolf took the time to visit Barnfield to meet with me and our staff and students to understand the real issues. She is right that we need to have experts teaching vocational qualifications who really understand and enjoy their subjects.

Wendy Wright OBE, Principal of Macclesfield College, said:

I was delighted that my college was part of the Wolf Review. I welcome the focus Prof Wolf has brought to the importance of vocational education for this country. My students are fully equipped for the world of work or further study and I want all students to have the same opportunity.

Lynn Sedgmore, of the 157 Group, said:

The 157 Group really welcome such a focus on the importance and benefits of vocational education. We appreciate the rigour and comprehensive dialogue that has taken place and we look forward to working constructively to ensure the main recommendations are implemented.

Notes to editors:

  1. The independent Wolf Review into vocational education can be downloaded from this page.
  2. Professor Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, and specialises in the relationship between education and the labour market. She has a particular interest in training and skills policy, universities, and the medical workforce. The latter is particularly appropriate to the Chair she holds, established in memory of an influential government adviser on medical management. She has been a specialist adviser to the House of Commons select committee on education and skills; is the Council Member for the UK on the Council of the United Nations University; writes widely for the national press and is a presenter for Analysis on BBC Radio 4.
  3. Westminster Kingsway College is one of the largest further education colleges in central London, with centres in Camden and Westminster. It has about 14,000 students across all age ranges and offers a wide range of further, adult and higher education programmes. It was founded in September 2000 following the merger of Westminster and Kingsway Colleges. The Victoria centre, where the School of Hospitality opened its doors to students in 1910. For further information, telephone 020 7963 4115 or visit the Westminster Kingsway College website.
  4. On 10th May 2011 the Department updated the press notice to correct a factual error in the bullet point about the number of pupils who did not get a C or above at GCSE in both English and maths.

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Published 3 March 2011