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Philosophy of Vocational Education

While there has been extensive debate over the principles and philosophy of academic education in recent decades, the same has not been the case for vocational education. This has led to constant experimentation, change and frustrating repetition.

As the consensus both here and internationally grows that high quality vocational education is a fundamental contributor to addressing future economic challenges, now is the time for us to have that debate. By establishing the underlying principles and philosophy of English vocational education, we can start to move away from instability towards a more settled and focused vision for the future. 

The Edge Foundation is leading this work in partnership with colleagues at the National Baccalaureate Trust, Kings College London, Institute of Education and City & Guilds. We want to spark a national debate about the principles and philosophy that should underpin vocational education in this country. We want you to take part in that debate.

Below you can download a short first paper setting out what we think are the key questions that we need to answer. We have received some really interesting responses already and will be publishing some of these below during February and March to spark further debate. If you have thoughts, join the debate by following and on Twitter or email your views to our Policy and Research Director at


Vocational education is a commonly used term but it is often used vaguely, and there is no clear and universal understanding of what it means. Part of the issue stems from attempts to articulate a distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ on the wrong grounds. ‘Academic’ can be used to describe the study of theory, not work-related, but intrinsically worthwhile, and studied for its own sake. ‘Vocational’ can be used to describe training in practical skills, work-related, and studied with the intention of moving into employment. The language is confusing and incorrect; academic and vocational education are not distinct in this way. 

Academic education can be vocational in that it is often practical (experiments in science, field projects in geography), and is often chosen with a specific career goal in mind (medicine or journalism). Vocational education includes underpinning theories related to the subject being studied (maths and physics for engineering, physiology for sport). The false dichotomy is linked to another misconception; that learners can be described as being either ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. We need to be clear in our use of language; this will help us move away from both misconceptions. 

With this in mind, vocational education can be defined as an educational pathway which integrates theory and practice and develops practical intelligence underpinned by theoretical knowledge, and transferable skills. A specific vocational context - broad or narrow - is used to define the focus for learning and assessment, and the line of sight to work is more pronounced. 

Having been involved in education for over 30 years I have seen many approaches to vocational education. Usually they fail because they are seen as being directed towards the less able and then are hijacked by pedagogy and content that is not really different from academic courses. 

 My view is simple. Ensure vocational courses are different and easy to understand. Being able to construct a heating system for a house is just as valid - arguably more valid - than understanding the history of medicine, glaciated landscape features and irregular verbs. The time has come to acknowledge this. 

 By the time children reach the age of 14 they know if the academic route is for them – and in my experience for as many as 30% of young people the academic curriculum totally alienates them. All learners should have the chance to experience vocational education from the age of 14, helping them to take steps towards rewarding and important careers in sectors from healthcare to education to construction. 

 Some young people at this age will be confident enough to commit totally to a vocational route (e.g. a pre-apprenticeship). Most need to be able to blend the academic and vocational to keep their options open. Courses should run from 14-19 and include a variety of assessment forms. 

 This will allow every student the chance to fulfil their potential, bringing much more out of talented youngsters who have abilities beyond the purely academic.

A number of reasons. It is a mistake to conceive of vocational education as a distinct field of education that requires different pedagogical approaches from other educational forms, since the two forms share more characteristics than separates them. 

If the purpose of vocational education is to prepare people for a vocation, employment, career, does not all education offer this benefit, by expanding the learner’s ambition, extending their skill, exposing them to the enduring values on which education is based? 

Individuals approach formal and informal education from their own distinctive standpoint. On any course there may be participants who are seeking to change jobs, to move out of unemployment, to return to learn after a career break, to progress in an organisation from their current role. Equally, there may be those on the same course who wish to learn new skills, enjoy the social interaction of learning in a group, widen personal horizons, escape from a familiar routine. Whatever the motivation of participants, each will have developed their own way of learning. 

Ways of learning are sometimes known as learning styles, and reflect very real differences between people in terms of personality and disposition. This can apply to whether you learn best individually or in groups, whether you prefer practical or theoretical approaches, or whether you prefer somewhere quiet where you can focus or more noisy, social learning spaces.

It is most important to understand how students learn and to design learning environments, student support and ways of teaching that afford different approaches. Placing the learner at the centre of the education process will help to ensure that appropriate pedagogies are employed, whether the course is labelled as vocational or academic. And we would do better to try and avoid this unhelpful terminology from distracting us from the need to create openings and opportunity for all students whatever their individual motivation.

Only in the 1970s was a comprehensive system of education introduced into England and Wales. The organisational ‘bridging’ of the erstwhile divide between academic and non-academic later developed into a common national curriculum up to the age of 16, consisting of ten subjects. Vocational preparation (in the sense of providing skills relevant to specific occupations) would be postponed to age 16, when, general education having been completed, the young person could go to colleges of further education, or take a job with work-based training.  Schools were for education; colleges and apprenticeships for vocational training.

 Something, however, was lost in this admirable attempt to find a common curriculum for all in a non-selective system – and, indeed, in that distinction between, and that consequent separation of, the academic and the vocational.  The comprehensive school had respected the value of practical learning, not just as a form of learning for those who were less academic, but as an important way of understanding, and of working intelligently within, the physical and social worlds students were to inhabit.  Future engineers need more than an ‘academic education’.  Practical ‘doing’ can be as demanding intellectually.  It can incorporate or embody theoretical understanding, and lead on to yet further reflection and theorising. 

 The years after 2000 saw a vigorous attempt to develop a 14-19 phase of education. But such an attempt was bereft of any deeper consideration of the kind of learning which is to be valued, the kind of qualifications which will reflect that learning, the kind of institutional framework which will support it and thus the ways in which progress can be ensured into higher education, further training and lifelong learning.  Policy and planning are trapped in an impoverished dichotomy between academic and vocational.  There is little sense of a more generous tradition of education, reflected in developments in the 1970s and 1980s, where the focus of concern lay in the education and development of persons.  Such a tradition would see the academic and the vocational in proper perspective and create the possibility of an integrated system of education and training, reflected in an appropriate and uniform framework of qualifications.

(For more information see Clarke, L. and Winch, C. (eds) ‘Vocational Education: International Approaches, developments and system’, London: Routledge, pp.118-132)

I believe that people have much greater wellbeing if they feel they are making a valued contribution to their society.  This is normally through work.  Job satisfaction is significantly improved through vocation, and a belief in work being more than just a way of earning to provide for yourself and your loved one.  Vocational education brings together academic learning with applied learning and skills, to prepare people for satisfying work.  This applies equally to surveyors, architects, electricians, artists, actors, doctors and many others in vocational education in schools, colleges and universities.  

This question is a question of social class and disadvantage in the UK. The overlooked and missing 50% who were identified as a key concern in a number of reports in the 2010s are very often from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Not only do they by default end up in ‘vocational’ forms of education, but a key goal that vocational education could achieve, would be to improve the quality of the education offered to this overlooked 50%. To a considerable extent, this is what further education colleges have sought to do for many years, particularly since staying on post-16 became the typical pattern from the 1980s. 

The pursuit of parity of esteem and equal standing is both hugely problematic and a goal that is in my view a complete waste of time, certainly in the UK. Until Degree Apprenticeships automatically lead to employment that attracts the same high salaries and opportunities for advancement as a 1st class honours degree from Oxford or Cambridge, and until elite level professions are defined as ‘vocational’ or even ‘technical’, then the reality of vocational education is that it is geared towards middle-level, mid-to higher skilled, technician level employment, which in the UK does not attract the same returns as high-skilled graduate work (whilst recognising that many graduates are now in ‘jobs that graduates do’, rather than ‘graduate jobs’).

Vocational education should be for everybody. We need a far greater focus on skills throughout the school system. For far too long technical education has been the poor relation of academic study. This must change.

We have a dire skills shortage in this country. That is not just dragging down productivity, but doing active harm to many of our people. It can’t be right that nine million working aged adults in England do not have the basic skills to get on and thrive. We must do better. 

And we must act soon, because the rise of automation is only going to worsen this situation as fewer and fewer unskilled jobs will be available. For too long people have sought to solve this problem by sending more and more young people to study academic subjects at university. But this is unsustainable. Many degrees are poor investments giving young people little in return for their money.

Instead we must build a system built around what works, encouraging people down paths that lead to good jobs and financial security. This means far greater investment in degree apprenticeships, which allow people to earn as they learn and develop skills that employers really value. It means a University Technical College in every town, and an Institute of Technology place available to every learner. It means proper careers advice that genuinely informs young people of all opportunities available to them, and an application system as simple to navigate as that used by universities.

Only by doing this will we allow everybody, no matter their background, to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.

The current generation of young people leaving education have never gone into the labour market with more years of schooling and higher levels of qualifications yet they are losing out in the struggle for employment. The ratio of youth to adult unemployment has crept upwards over the last generation with earnings squeezed compared to older workers. It is a paradox of modern society which raises fundamental questions about whether young people are being prepared effectively for the twenty-first century labour market.

As the labour market has become more complex, it has become more difficult for young people to make informed investment decisions about the education and training (human capital) they accumulate, contributing to significant mismatch between skills and qualities demanded by the labour market and those possessed by young people. For young people, the labour market has become more complex, transitions have become more fractured and precarious and a green-collar revolution have begun demanding new skills and capabilities. 

These structural changes highlight the importance of high quality careers provisions, including direct contact with employers. The evidence we’ve gathered in the past 8 years clearly demonstrates the crucial role of school-mediated employer engagement activities and their impact on young people’s economic outcomes, including their earnings and the likelihood of becoming NEET. We believe this relationship exists due to improved social and cultural capital and wider access to trusted, non-redundant and relevant information about a range of opportunities and progression routes. The key message when it comes to authentic contact between students and employers is more is more. Greater exposure to a range of careers across different industries could maximise the highlighted benefits.

The ultimate success measure for education of all forms should be the destination of its students. What matters is not simply that young people come away with a clutch of paper qualifications, but that they get the wider support, social capital and professional skills to succeed in their lives and careers. 

Pupil destinations should be recorded and measured rigorously and in a timely way, with comparisons showing what a school or college’s pupils went on to do up to 5 or 10 years after they left. To ensure fairness, school and college destinations should be compared with their peers providing education to a similar socio-economic group. 

Mike Tomlinson was absolutely right to suggest in 2004 that there should be a single integrated end-of-school baccalaureate or diploma. This should seamlessly mix vocational and academic qualifications, an extended project and personal development, thereby measuring rounded achievement and readiness for adult life.

Achievement of this Baccalaureate together with pupil destinations should be the two key measures of success. 

Education needs to be more expansive. We need to develop the whole child – head, heart and hand. And young people need to be taught with a repertoire that develops these sides to them. The starting point for us is oracy (speaking). This is not just because employers say repeatedly how important it is. Nor is it because so many more jobs in the future will require articulate and skilled communication. But because there is a moral purpose in every young person finding their voice and taking control of their own life. 

A second key approach that blends the best of head, heart and hand and gets young people thinking, doing and creating is interdisciplinary work that solves real world problems. Using the best of deign thinking, having an authentic audience as the focus and creating a product that has value beyond the classroom can be transformational. 

The third pedagogical approach that has the potential to give young people a head start, is giving them the coaching tools and approaches to develop their well-being, bounce back from setbacks, take risks and have the reflection and confidence to constantly grow and improve. 

‘Vocational pedagogy brings together teaching, learning and assessment within specific contexts which often have wider developmental concerns, for example lifelong learning, but also seek to develop other generic and transverse skills (applicable in a wide range of contexts), as well as sector specific knowledge and skills.’ (Huddleston, 2011:43). 

It is much more than linking theory to practice. It involves the combination of knowledge, skills and behaviours that provide access to communities of practice and build professional identity. Vocational learners require exposure to rich and varied learning environments including real workplaces – workshops, studios, laboratories – inhabited by experts with recognised professional identity (QCA, 2008). In short, vocational pedagogy must embrace the ‘what’ ‘how’ and ‘where’ of learning, bringing together content, process and context (both social and professional).

Vocational pedagogy recognises that learning occurs in different ways and in different contexts and should provide opportunities for learners to engage in problem based approaches, collaborative learning, cross-subject working and in using new technologies. But it also requires learners to ‘make sense’ of that learning through reflection, making connections, planning and reviewing performance. Developing these meta-cognitive capabilities is an important aspect of developing strong vocational pedagogy.    

The German VET model continues to offer important lessons for the English system, despite certain weaknesses and current vulnerability given the changing nature of the labour market. 

Construction in particular has several pedagogical features we can learn from. It is built around three locations: the classroom (Berufschule), centred around knowledge underpinning; training centre (Ausserbetrieblicheausbildungzentrum), focussed on simulation and innovation (including new digital technologies not necessarily yet prevalent in the workplace); and the site or workplace, where the trainee learns about ‘market’ conditions. The first two locations have over the years become increasingly important, given the more abstract nature of the construction labour process, as has the principle of Lernfelder or project-based learning, which is applied in the workshops of the training centres. 

Added to these features is what is know as the Stufenausbildungssystem, whereby each year of the 3-year programme involves progressive specialisation, beginning in the first with the trainee covering all areas of construction, moving to particular construction sectors (finishing, building and civil engineering) in the second, and only specialising in the 16 occupations such as carpenter or bricklayer, which cover all areas of activity in the industry, in the third. 

The weakness of the system – a weakness evident across Europe, including England - is the site or work-based element, which depends on the individual employer to take on trainees. In a situation where the labour market is increasingly fragmented, with many small firms, and where the site is a dangerous place, with heavy investment in plant and building components, employers may be reluctant to take on trainees or able to provide a range of experience in different activities.