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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 continue to develop a national debate about the principles and philosophy that should underpin vocational education in this country.

We published our initial paper setting out key questions in this area in early 2018 and received an inspirational set of responses, leading to a Big Debate in March 2018.

This discussion formed the basis of our first report in this area – Debating the First Principles of English Vocational Education. This is available to download below.

This report posed a further set of questions at the end and we would welcome short responses of up to 250 words on any of these areas by the end of October 2018. Below are some of those that we have already received.

We will host a second Big Debate on this area in Autumn 2018. If you would like to submit a response to one of the questions or are interested in attending this event, you can contact our Director of Research and Policy at

Firstly, fundamental ingredients[1] of vocational/technical pedagogy include: a calm, well-disciplined and orderly learning environment; a culture of aspiration and achievement for all learners; purposeful and stimulating teaching; outlining behaviour expectations of learners; developing shared respect; adapting learning support to the needs of learners; interactive approaches to teaching; fostering positive relationships between teachers and learners; and teachers having strong subject knowledge and confidence in their own ability.

Secondly, the important additional distinctive ingredient of effective vocational/technical pedagogy is the contextualisation of learning to the workplace. Vocational/technical teachers need to have ‘dual professionalism’ where they are experts in their subject and have expertise in pedagogy. Moreover, sequencing of learning is important with contextualisation representing the critical layer. This vital ingredient includes having a ‘clear line of sight’ to work i.e. relating to the workplace or being contextualised in the occupational sector.

We have developed a model to assist understanding of vocational/technical pedagogy. The model places learners at the centre. The characteristics of quality, general and academic teaching and learning form the first ring of provision. The second ring presents the distinctive ingredients of vocational/technical education. 

[1] We identified the ingredients from our review of expert publications:McCrone, T., O’Beirne, C., Sims, D. and Taylor, A. (2015). A Review of Technical Education. Slough: NFER.


In the UK vocational education is often presented as the poor relation of academic education, reserved for the less academically gifted and designed to directly prepare someone for a particular trade or occupation, but it is more complicated than that for several reasons. First, for many decades a number of university courses reserved for the academically gifted have been designed to directly prepare students for their chosen occupations - law and medicine, for example.  Second, and more recently, much more vocational preparation now takes place in higher education establishments, often replacing formal or informal apprenticeships. Nursing and policing are prominent examples.  Third, with the expansion of higher education, more students of lower ability are now enrolled on courses that are not directed at a particular trade or occupation and which are largely academic in nature.  Fourth, international comparisons suggest that, even for education and training directly concerned with preparation for a particular trade, there is wide variety in the width and depth of that preparation.  The content of German vocational courses compared to their UK equivalents provides a notable example.

 So in the light of all of this what is vocational education for and what should be its content?  Clearly it should be directed towards particular trades and occupations.  Sometimes its recipients will be the academically gifted.  Sometimes, and certainly more often, it will be targeted at those who have done relatively modestly at school. For years, governments tried and failed to give the vocational route parity of esteem with the academic route.  Perhaps in insisting on this they widened rather than narrowed the divide. Times, however, have changed because a large number of young people are going to university only to find that they are not getting value for money in terms of the courses provided, whilst the labour market rewards are modest.  Slowly people are realizing that a revived vocational route is necessary, both in bachelors degrees at university and in shorter sub-degree offerings whether in university, FE colleges or work-based apprenticeships.  That route need not, and should not, be narrow and simply occupational- skill based.  It should include the enhancement of cognitive skills – the ability to identify problems, to think creatively about how to solve them, and to express ideas cogently whether orally or in writing.   To quote the 1963 Robbins Report, while emphasising that there is no betrayal of values when institutions…teach what will be of some practical use, we must postulate that what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind“.   Not only will this produce better workers, it will also give people more chances to switch jobs and experience greater labour market mobility.  Most importantly of all, it will create thinking and critical citizens. 

Vocational education is essentially the preparation, learning and development for an occupation. This gives any programme of VE a focus which is more specific than ‘employability’ or ‘preparation for the world of work’. VE includes developing a technical and vocational skill set; appropriate communication and team working skills; an understanding of planning requirements and, finally, appropriate background theoretical understanding.

For young people it is important that VE programmes are flexibly designed to allow students to change their minds. It is easy at the age of 17 to get on the ‘wrong bus’ and we must ensure that students are able to board the right bus for them. Otherwise one might find oneself on the wrong bus right through until retirement which does no-one any good.

A range of actors have a legitimate interest in assessment outcomes of vocational learning: employers, teachers/trainers, learners, assessment experts and, sometimes, funders.  However, their views may differ on what counts as reliable, valid, fair, practical and useful (5 features of effective assessment).  Assessment designed for academic purposes is characterised by written examinations and tests completed under timed conditions; vocational and practical assessment also requires learners to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through performance in the workplace and adapt to the cultural norms of their communities of practice (Huddleston, 2015)

Designing robust assessment for vocational and practical learning involves three inter-related dimensions: ‘learning that’, ‘learning how’ and ‘learning where’.  It involves the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours that require a range of assessment techniques suited to the inter-connected purposes of that learning.  This cannot be achieved simply by testing one dimension, but all three: knowledge, practical skills and their application in the workplace or ‘real life’ contexts.

When planning for authentic assessment five inter-related ‘dimensions’ should be considered (Gulikers et al. 2004, 2009).  Namely: the assessment task (is it a real workplace activity?); the context in which it takes place (is it an actual workshop, studio, laboratory?); the social context in which it occurs (does it mirror the social conditions of professional practice?); the expected output (an artefact, or a process undertaken to professionally acceptable standards?) and; the criteria against which these four aspects should be judged must reflect realistic professional practice in professional contexts.

The issue is around the design of assessment (its fitness for purpose, its validity and reliability) and in that way assessment in vocational programmes is distinctive from academic programmes. Notions of equivalence are meaningless since we are not talking about the same things. However, a baccalaureate approach might enable all achievement to be registered, at least on an equal footing, without saying that these things are the same because they are not.