In Britain from the middle of the 1970s the then previous governmental concern was with equality and equality of opportunity which has gradually been replaced over the last forty years by the new focus on the needs of industry and the economy.
The Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s introduced slight modifications to the education system which reflected the new priorities for the economic stability of the workforce and vocational function of education. It is generally regarded as starting from the timeline derived from a Great Debate on education made by the then Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in his Ruskin College speech of October 1976.
Since the mid 70's education has gradually drifted into focus of the political and economic discussion related to the decline of Britain's industrial infrastructure and the rise of unemployment, again this is prevalent in 2011. The focus was upon the examination and the explicit connection between what goes on in education and what goes on in employment. The question needed asking "Where they and are they disconnected"?
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The analysis at that time, which underpinned governmental action in the educational arena, assumed a deficiency in both young peoples' and the schools charged with their education, it was a time for change. Saunders (1988) drew attention to a commonly held view when he suggested that young people lacked both the necessary skills and the appropriate work experience and the habits of mind that go with it to survive in a highly competitive labour market. Schools were deficient because they failed to equip their students with the necessary basic skills and attitudes to enter the workplace, it could still be argued we are still no nearer a solution to this dilemma twenty years on. Such views again, were upheld by James Callaghan when, in his Ruskin College speech, he outlined schools' deficiencies in terms of progressive teachers' ideologies, the "inappropriate" states of mind that this produced in students, and the lack of an appreciation, understanding and commitment on the part of students to industries needs and work; as sited by Brooks (1991).
The whole issue of educational effectiveness was presented as important enough in the public and political mind for the then government to readjust its traditional view on the relative autonomy and structure of education and consider more direct forms of influencing the education process.
It was at this juncture that development of a rational for the structural and curricular development of the vocational education and training. As Noah and Eckstein (1988) pointed out, that in recent years there has been a single-minded pursuit of a vocational education and training system that would purportedly enable Britain to compete for world markets, this could be a contentious argument as Colleges and Universities compete in vocationalism courses. We have to ask why this is so, and the answer may be characterised by the Government's need to increase profitability at all levels within the economy.
The Government's response to education has been to draw up a series of policies which seek to establish new frameworks to assist in the intervention of education. In addition to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), two other Government departments became directly involved with education and training, this was the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) which is now the Department of Business and Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department of Employment which is now the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), all of which express their concerns about the right fit for education. By the end of the 1970's the principals for planning and monitoring and the intervention into education was then in the form of Manpower Services Commission (MSC).
With the rapidly rising unemployment and the MSC usefulness in cloaking the then youth unemployment under the respectability title of Youth Training Schemes (YTS) ensured it survived despite a rising level of disquiet and pressure from those committed to laissez-faire economic policy. From this it is possible to see parallels with the modern apprenticeship schemes being offer to the youth of 2011 and the education maintenance allowances (EMA).
The New Vocationalism - The Rise of Vocational Training during the 1980 and 1990s
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The Manpower Services Commission (MSC) seized the opportunity to advance the radically new training initiatives, a key driver of which was the vocational qualifications where based on relevant standards of competence for all skilled occupations, and vocational preparation for all young people including those still at school.
The Commission established itself at the heart of vocational education and training policy-making, becoming the national training agency with a major role in the economic regeneration of Britain through the new vocational training.
The launch by the Government of its "New Training Initiative" in 1981, set out an agenda for the 1980's. This initiative supported by the MSC drew together a series of educational and training objectives which focused primarily upon: Skill training, foundation education and training for young people (Youth Training Scheme) and Training adults.
Throughout the 1980's the MSC and the other derivative organisations established schemes to vocationalise schools, Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) and to provide opportunities for continuing education and development in the early years at work e.g. Youth Training Scheme (YTS), Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) and numerous others.
It should be noted that the decision to give the role to developing and implementing training for the young to the MSC was also a decision to exclude the Department of Education from a central role in the controlling policy related to those involved in compulsory and post compulsory education.
It is from this point that we can begin to chart the chain of events that eventually led to the Further Education and Higher Education Act (1992) which, in conferring corporate status on FE Colleges, which transferred the funding and control of FE, Tertiary and Sixth Form institutions from Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to the colleges themselves, this took effect from April 1993. This was viewed as politically and administratively repositioning of FE and Training as described by Crowther (1959). The Further Education and Higher Education Act (1992) influenced by and was committed to "new vocationalism", as described in the White Paper (1991) Education and Training for the 21st Century, followed by the Further Education and Higher Education Act (1992) which sought to establish a new legislative framework for Post 16 further education and training. These individual institutions were now responsible for their own budgets, staffing levels, marketing, personnel, course planning and the provision of such. In reality the mechanism of funding and the control of FE passed from the Local Authorities to the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC). This central body set up to provide delegated Regional Advisory Committees (RAC's) who administered funding primarily on the basis of student numbers and the educational provision offered. The FE and HE Act 1992 in relation to FE sought to promote an expanded post 16 education and training system driven more by external funding partnerships, also to ensure delivery of vocational priorities at local level to include:
(i) Better value for money
(ii) NVQ qualifications.
(iii) Increased student participation.
(iv) Improved skill levels
It was envisaged that "enterprise partnerships" would have a major impact on further changing the Post 16 provision, making it more client focused (student centred) and responsive to industries needs.
The Government's perspective of the early 80's viewed unqualified young people leaving school as often lacking the basics in numeracy and literacy skills and effectively, therefore, "immunised themselves " from further education or training. It could be argued that decisions were taken to relocate the responsibility for vocational education and move this across to a Department less open to local democratic influence, namely no links with the communities they are in but with the industries they depend upon. Intervention required a quite different vehicle from that used for influence. The MSC was linked to the Employment Department unfettered by the constraints of custom and practice and the procedural straight jacket of a government ministry for education.
In a comparatively short period of time, only three years, most LEA's were complicit in the new vocationalism. The functions of these schemes were to encourage educational institutions through the incentive of lavish funding to pilot on large scale methods of delivering, organising, managing and re sourcing vocational education.
The purpose was to tighten the connections between the curriculum and employment, which were deemed too loose and too indirect for the current workforce requirements. Separate funding mechanisms were established which linked lavish resources and staffing to a specific set of teaching and learning practices characteristic of vocational orthodoxy, an example, student centeredness, which often never occurred in LEA run establishment prior to the initiatives, being my era of secondary education I can state having gone to a comprehensive school the learning that took place was not coherent, rather disjointed at times.
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In order to control the growth and development of such initiatives the Government moved to form a national training body with its own distinct funding mechanism.
The launch of the Training Agency in 1988 was spawned from the MSC, which cemented the relationship between training, vocational education and the national objectives, establishing employers as being in direct control both of the planning and the finance of vocational education. Numerous local employer committees, Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), were established by the Training Agency to facilitate this new approach to training.
National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ's)
A further significant development in the vocationalisation of the curriculum was the establishment of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) in 1986 which was given a remit to design and implement a new national framework of vocational qualifications. The NCVQ introduced and endorsed competence based qualifications which were awarded by vocational awarding bodies such as the City and Guilds of London Institute. In 1997 it merged with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to form the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). This represented the current policy direction, which was to create stronger links between general and vocational education.
This now powerful body has managed to affect a revolution in the structure and organisation of vocational courses, popularising the concept of competence based learning which has invaded every sphere of educational activity. NVQ's are based on a notion of competence which is essentially concerned with performance in employment. Competence is assessed by means of specific criteria laid down by employers in their respective occupational fields; these are arrived at through a functional and skills analysis process and created the National Occupational Standards. It is remarkable that this radically different assessment framework has managed to change the nature of so many vocational courses without being subjected to far reaching critical analysis from government departments.
Reacting to the criticism voiced that NVQ's are too occupationally specific and "provide no basis on which workers could transfer the competencies they develop to different occupational sectors" (Raggett 1991 p78), the Government launched a new complimentary framework of General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ).
GNVQs were officially announced in May 1991 in the White Paper, Education and Training for the 21st Century. GNVQs are available in broad occupational areas and based mostly in colleges and schools. They prepare young people for employment as well as give a route to HE. GNVQs were expected to be an equivalent to relevant academic qualifications and they were available at three levels, Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced; with GNVQ Advanced are equivalent to two conventional A levels. GNVQs were expected to be sufficiently distinctive from occupationally specific NVQs, but at the same time be related to them, so young people could progress effectively from one qualification to another. The Government was determined to make GNVQ system successful and all colleges and awarding bodies were instructed to bring their existing courses into the NVQ and GNVQ framework. The problem within GNVQ system was largely concerned with assessment and grading. GNVQs were expected to assess skills, knowledge and understanding rather than professional competence. Such assessment would be in a form of assessment by projects and assignments together forming a portfolio of evidence rather than through external examinations. There was some concerns that GNVQs like NVQs should not be graded at all as this went beyond the basic principle of reporting an attainment or competence, but it was eventually recommended that candidates should be awarded 'merit' and 'distinction' for appropriate levels of performance. Such systems of assessment and grading lead to the opinion that GNVQ, unlike the traditional academic qualifications, could not be failed. At the same time as there were no external examinations it was therefore difficult to control the quality of qualifications given by different institutions (An equality issue).
Claiming to offer broader preparation for employment, being less occupationally specific, GNVQ's were marketed as an acceptable route into higher level qualifications, including HE. They were publicised as having parity with academic qualifications at the same level, specifically A levels.
A Restructuring and renamed as Advanced Vocational Certificates of Education (AVCE) in September 2000, rebranding of these qualifications continue to seek to establish themselves as a viable alternative to AS and A2 qualifications at A-level. The uptake was significantly less than the traditional routes into HE.
The Government has striven to place all the post 16 qualifications available on an equal footing in an attempt to remove the vocational/academic divide, a task which has some advocates and critics alike. In so doing it has focused on restructuring the academic content and assessment methodology of the new AVCE recasting them in the same shape as A-levels. This is not what the qualification was design and developed for, more transferable skills were required. Consequently it has removed many of the vocational qualities in order to emphasise the academic nature of the new qualification; the chicken and egg analogy hence the restructuring of National Qualifications Framework (NQF) with Qualifications & Credit Framework (QCF).
The QCF as of 2010 is a new way of recognising vocational skills and qualifications. It does this by awarding credit for units (1 unit equating to 10 hrs tuition) and enables learners to gain qualifications at their own pace along flexible routes. Each learner will have a learner record (LR) allowing portability of awards around learning establishments.
The QCF has four main aims as describe by the City & Guilds (2010):
To ensure a wider range of achievements can be recognised within a more inclusive qualifications framework.
To establish a qualifications system that is more responsive to individual and employer needs
To establish a simpler qualifications framework that is easier for all users to understand
To reduce the burden of bureaucracy in the accreditation and assessment of qualifications.
The Wolf Report Findings
The Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove commissioned Professor Alison Wolf of King's College London to carry out an independent review of vocational education. She was asked to consider how vocational education for 14- to 19-year-olds can be improved in order to promote successful progression into the labour market and into higher level education and training. She was also asked to provide practical recommendations to help inform future policy direction, taking into account current financial constraints.
From her report I have extracted some of the key recommendations applicable to vocational education as follows:
Incentivising young people to take the most valuable vocational qualifications pre-16, while removing incentives to take large numbers of vocational qualifications to the detriment of core academic studies.
Introducing principles to guide study programmes for young people on vocational routes post-16 to ensure they are gaining skills which will lead to progression into a variety of jobs or further learning, in particular, to ensure that those who have not secured a good pass in English and mathematics GCSE continue to study those subjects until they do.
Evaluating the delivery structure and content of apprenticeships to ensure they deliver the right skills for the workplace consistent with national occupational standards.
Removing the requirement that all qualifications offered to 14- to 19-year-olds fit within the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which has had a detrimental effect on their appropriateness and has left gaps in the market.
Enabling FE lecturers and professionals to teach in schools, ensuring young people are being taught by those best suited to that role.
From her report the above have a direct impact on FE as the restructuring of the QCF is well underway and that FE lectures are being recognised as active participants in the restructure of the education system, again the mechanisms for vocational education operate independently of government intervention.
In essence this current issues assignment has not revealed any real new findings since the Great debate of 1976. A change of Governments and Policy makers and so called initiatives have failed to fruit. In my opinion they are just re-branded ideas of old concepts and ideals. As substantial progress has been made in developing vocational education in Britain during the last ten to twenty years. It has become clear to the leading politicians as well as ordinary citizens that in order for the country to progress economically the education available for the vast majority of the young peoples has to be adequate for the needs of the twenty first century. The cost of exclusion of a significant proportion of the young people from the large sections of the labour market is unacceptable. Social exclusion leads to criminality, unemployment, it cuts people out of society and from taking part in civil and cultural life. The aim of the present Government is to create a more dynamic economy with high levels of educational achievement, dramatically reducing proportion of young people not in education, training or work. It is expected that further development of the vocational education and raising the participation in post 16 education and life long learning will help to achieve these goals.
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