Can we mix with the best in the world?

Every two years, young people from some 40 nations, including the UK, attend a ‘skills olympics’ in which they compete against each other to demonstrate their vocational acumen. The practitioners, all aged under 22, represent their countries in a wide range of traditional vocational crafts – from confectionery to construction, and from landscape gardening to motor mechanics – and vie for medals over four days of rigorous tests.

The UK is usually  placed midway  in the table of countries in these WorldSkills competitions, compared to consistent top performers such as South Korea and Japan. But this year’s UK team is pinning its hopes much higher for its trip to Helsinki in May, says Graeme Hall, chief executive of UK Skills, the organisation which champions skills and learning for work through competitions like this and the National Training Awards.

“Our aim for this WorldSkills competition is to be in the top 10. We set that goal two years ago when we realised we’d made substantial improvement from the last competition and we could stay on track,” he says. “We feel we understand what [being] ‘world class’ is all about.”
It’s a tall order, and comes at a time of great challenge for employers and providers as the government drives forward its reform of vocational education.

As the dust was still settling on the February publication of the government’s White Paper on 14-19 education and skills – which called for the introduction of vocational diplomas for pupils not opting for the traditional academic route of A-levels – stakeholders were anticipating the release of another White Paper, scheduled for 22 March, on skills. With reams of paper being devoted to the statement of aims and goals regarding vocational education, is the UK really on the cusp of change when it comes to providing a system of training that will improve productivity and increase competitiveness of industry?

At the heart of the 14-19 reforms – published in response to the Tomlinson working group’s recommendations – is a renewed emphasis on basic skills throughout secondary education. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has lobbied hard for a government crackdown on poor literacy and numeracy, which it regards as the education system’s greatest failing – not the structure of qualifications frameworks.

Although the CBI applauded education secretary Ruth Kelly’s decision to retain GCSEs and A-levels, many stakeholders have criticised the decision to reject Tomlinson’s recommendation that the current system of exams be scrapped in favour of a Baccalaureate-style diploma. Instead, the government is pushing a system of vocational diplomas in 14 broad sector areas to exist alongside GCSEs and A-levels.

A target date of 2008 has been set for the first four diplomas in information and communication technology (ICT), engineering, health and social care, and creative and media subjects. Detail on how they will be structured is still thin on the ground – apart from the White Paper’s assertion that employers, via sector skills councils (SSCs), will lead on design. Other aspects of the vocational reforms include:

  • extending the role of Centres of Vocational Excellence in further education to make high quality provision available to young people in school
  • developing new ‘skills academies’ as national centres of excellence in skill areas
  • enabling ‘specialist schools’ to receive additional resources to boost provisio
  • improving the quality and number of apprenticeships available to young people, bringing them within the diploma framework.

Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta – the SSC for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies – criticises what he calls the government’s “wasted opportunity” to end the age-old prejudice against vocational education.

“We have missed out on a golden opportunity to finally end the old distinction that academic education is first class and vocational education is somehow second class,” he says.


The parity of esteem issue aside, Kelly’s proposals for vocational reforms are an improvement on the current system, says Whiteman. He is positive about the new diplomas – and the lack of detail about how they will be structured.

Semta has been tasked with piloting design of the new diploma for engineering and, in the absence of guidance from government, is getting on with working out the detail itself.

“Because no-one seems to be able to offer us a steer, we’re taking the higher ground and coming up with a proposal we know employers will support,” says Whiteman.

It is early days in Semta’s planning, but Whiteman sees the main difference between the diploma and existing vocational GCSEs as the incorporation of up to two days a week in a local college or provider into the school curriculum. The ‘feeder’ for the diploma would be core GCSEs in maths, English and engineering, or the pilot young apprenticeships, in which 14- to 16-year-old pupils pursue industry-specific vocational qualifications that map onto the post-16 apprenticeships.

“The diploma itself could be a mixture of things – some NVQ units, an A-level in engineering, maths or physics,” says Whiteman. “It would be a case of doing just one, or maybe two if you’re bright. It could be a number of things delivered in school and at college.”


One of the first SSCs, Semta represents employers in industries with a strong tradition of vocational training. But SSCs in some other sectors are not so well-organised. Indeed, some sectors, such as rail and local government, are not yet represented in the SSC network.

Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser at the CIPD, says: “The White Paper talks about getting employers involved in establishing vocational pathways, but sector skills councils are not particularly well established, so some back-up mechanisms are needed.”

She wants to see the government liaising with professional bodies and talking directly to employers to ensure the framework of vocational qualifications offers flexibility to young people – not restricting their career prospects at an early age – and is both relevant to and understood by employers. “Employers need to be able to get their heads around it all,” says Gill.

“At the moment there are huge numbers of qualifications that come under the umbrella of vocational qualifications.”

SSCs have been tasked with rationalising qualifications for their sector, but with the network still in development, progress is bound to vary.

Richard Wainer, senior policy adviser in skills and employment at the CBI, says employers are confused by the “plethora of qualifications” that now exists.

“A lot of qualifications overlap in the skills they provide, and some employers will recognise some but not others,” he says.

With regard to the 14-19 reforms, Wainer says the White Paper does give a lot of scope for employers to be involved. “We’d like to see [the government] detail the specifics on how it plans to support employers getting more involved with schools – having some better guidelines and support infrastructure in place.”


The CIPD is concerned about a lack of clarity for employers when it comes to comparing levels of attainment on the diploma route with those on the academic route.

Gill says: “Employers have a general idea of A-levels, so it’s important that when employers are looking at the vocational diploma, they can see where each level [sits] and what they can expect of individuals coming out at each level.”

There is also the concern that in keeping vocational education separate from the academic route, pupils may not view them as equally viable options. “We wanted young people to feel they could move between the two,” says Gill.

For those confident about going the vocational route, there’s no question the reforms will offer young people more flexibility. But Helen Milner, executive director of national  online delivery specialist UfI, believes the White Paper came up short in two areas: in failing to highlight the role e-learning can play, particularly in re-engaging and re-motivating young people who are disaffected, and in not making enough of the role of information, advice and guidance. At the moment, there is a lot of information on vocational pathways, but little understanding, says Milner.

“There’s no real commitment to look at the child as an individual. If the starting point is looking at a person’s strengths, motivations and incentives, and then fitting the curriculum and opportunities around that personalised approach, as someone working in the industry and as a parent, I believe it would be much more powerful,” she says.

The government should draw on the expertise of existing resources, such as learndirect, says Milner.

“All of our 1.5 million learners have taken a personalised approach to what they’re doing and where they’re doing it. Diagnostics are now available online and there are lots of things that can provide people with tools rather than just information,” she adds.

Case study – cooking up a recipe for success

The Yorkshire-based bakery Bettys and Taylors will be sending confectioner/pastry cook Helen Barker to the WorldSkills competition in May.
Judging by the Academy of Culinary Arts award she’s already won – beating off stiff competition from her counterparts at the likes of Claridge’s and the Savoy Hotel – her prospects in Helsinki look good.

Attracting young people into the bakery is a priority at Bettys – Barker herself started as a ‘weekend girl’ while still at school. Other initiatives include a cookery school for schoolchildren and summer placements for GCSE students.

“It’s quite difficult to attract young people into the baking industry, so the more routes that are available the better,” says Jo Crebbin, bakery operations manager. “The diploma certainly could help.”

Bettys, which employs around 150 people on the bakery side of the business, believes strongly in the benefits of an in-house approach to vocational training. A team of one-to-one trainers provides craft skills training – with external providers used only for quite specialist courses – and Bettys was one of the first bakeries in the country to establish its own system of in-house NVQ assessors.

“It’s a much better way for us to monitor how well people are getting on,” says Crebbin.

“We’re a lot closer to how people are developing and we can go at our own pace. The other beauty of it is we are not confined to an academic year, so if someone is very committed and a quick learner, then they can finish the course faster.”

The White Paper on 14-19 education and skills identifies raising standards in literacy and numeracy as a priority – the ‘core’ upon which other goals, including the vocational diplomas, will be built.

It’s precisely this logic that accounts for the success of vocational training in countries such as Germany, The Netherlands and Japan in meeting employer needs and driving up productivity, says Graeme Hall, chief executive of UK Skills.

“The standard of general education of people who go into vocational training is much higher. We have to recognise that the most important thing we can do in the country is [push up] the standards of people leaving school after 11 years of full-time education. Whatever system we have post-16 will then work better.”

Barry Crompton, technical training manager for manufacturer Federal Mogul Friction Products, believes vocational routes should be emphasised from an early age. “In The Netherlands, firms go into schools when children are as young as six years old and give them an awareness of what’s available for them in the world.”

In other countries, industry is often heavily and directly involved in planning training, says Crompton. “In The Netherlands, it’s funded by industry and the unions and answerable to them. The government has no control over them whatsoever.”


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