In theory, the stakes that we all share in a successful vocational education and training (VET) system should be a driving force for its efficacy. Government desires a highly developed workforce. Employers want workers they can rely on. Workers themselves want the know-how and skills to do their jobs well, and which can be transferred to other workplaces if they choose. And, of course, the broader public wants reliable, skilled labour to provide their food, their housing, their transport, their healthcare, and many other things that contribute to a smooth-running society. In short, we all have much to gain when VET is executed well.
However, the reality is more complex. Different stakeholder groups have differing views, for instance, about the nature of high-quality workplace learning. They have contrasting opinions (and, indeed, objectives) regarding policy. And as the history of VET in England shows us, more often than not, these different priorities do not correlate. While the will for an effective VET system may be there, the path to success is poorly defined.
For these reasons, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to chair a series of ongoing debates on the principles of vocational education, sponsored by Edge. Since 2018, these debates have laid the groundwork for a discussion of important issues relating to vocational education, drawing evidence out of academic circles and into circulation amongst a community of policymakers, practitioners and business professionals. Despite oft-conflicting viewpoints, the early debates established an atmosphere of positivity, mutual trust and respect for the shared vision sought.
In late 2020 and early 2021, the debates entered the fourth round, providing a detailed reflection on areas where unresolved issues still lie. While the complexity of the topic means the discussions are inextricably linked, these recent debates can be divided into three broad areas: work-based learning and professional judgment, qualifications and assessment, and the role of trade unions and the social partnership.
The most salient points from these discussions have been pulled into an invaluable report, Debating the First Principles of Vocational Education. This offers an overview of the debates themselves as well as reflections from colleagues across the VET research and policy landscape.
Let us consider work-based learning. During the debates, Dr Bill Esmond (University of Derby) offered a thought-provoking critique of craft-based learning, while Mark Langhammer (Northern Ireland Education Union) gave a detailed case study of electrician apprenticeships in Northern Ireland. For a broader view, Dr Lesley Powell (Nelson Mandela University) shared insights from within South Africa’s informal economy. While different from our own, this proved not to be so far from our experience as we might expect.
In measuring a worker’s competence, qualifications and assessment also emerged as a key form of social guarantee. But how might these be shaped? Paul Newton (Ofqual) highlighted the challenges of ensuring assessor competence. Meanwhile, from Sweden, Viveca Lindberg (Stockholm University) explained the pros and cons of an equity-focused system in which assessment takes place via a three-way discussion between teacher, student and workplace supervisor.
Neither work-based learning nor assessment stands much chance of success without a strong social partnership. The debate on this subject focused on how we might evolve social partnership in England. Labour peer, Lord Maurice Glasman, and Norman Crowther (National Education Union) underlined the importance of balancing local and national VET structures while developing a culture that both recognises and accommodates divergence of interests. Hermann Nehls (former Head of VET at the German Trade Union Confederation) offered some inspiration with reflections on Germany’s national VET settlement. Although imperfect, the German system provides some insight that may be useful when considering the development of a social partnership in the English context.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of what was covered. Nevertheless, these robust discussions point to new ways in which conversations around VET in England may develop. While we remain some way off a system that meets the needs of all stakeholders, the path to reform is not as nebulous as it once was. Areas of consensus and agreement have emerged. From employers to policymakers, I encourage anyone to download the full report. It makes a rich and fascinating read.