For almost a quarter of a century of devolution, the phrase ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic educational pathways has been the aspiration of successive Welsh Governments. It has been the hook on which the further education sector has been able to argue for additional investment and to ensure Ministers keep a clear focus on the needs of this group of learners.
However, at a time when investment in vocational and technical education is more important than ever for a sustainable and more equal Wales, the policy landscape is uncertain. With budgets tight across all public services and with the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research taking over the regulation and funding for the post-16 sector from April 2024, we need to make the case again for sustained investment in vocational and technical education.
The publication of the Vocational Qualifications (VQ) Review, expected over the coming weeks, will be an important milestone in that debate, as has been the report from Hefin David MS on transitions to employment.
In our evidence to the VQ Review, ColegauCymru highlighted the lack of an overall policy framework and strategy for vocational and technical education and the potential for colleges to do more to deliver technical routes for employers at Levels 4 and 5.
The need for the clarity of a new strategy must be addressed with urgency so that we agree and invest in the right priorities for the future and the role of colleges in helping them to be achieved. We argued for recognition from the review and from government of the distinctiveness of vocational learning, including appropriate assessment, clear progression pathways, and access to advice and guidance.
Parity of esteem isn’t about having a uniform policy environment, but rather recognising that vocational and technical routes are distinctive and equally as valuable. Decision makers need to understand the distinctive needs of vocational and technical routes in the same way they understand academic pathways.
In reality, there is still work to do on raising the status and visibility of vocational and technical education. We know we aren’t alone in facing this challenge. Across the world, other nations are grappling with how to ensure vocational and technical routes are embedded throughout the education system, and specifically how to ensure that further education gets the investment and recognition it needs. Colleges from Wales were able to meet like-minded institutions and share challenges earlier this year at the World Federation for Colleges and Polytechnics Annual Congress in Canada.
We have come a long way in Wales. The FE sector has a strong relationship with government. There is a shared purpose and understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the sector. Our collective muscle means we are no longer a Cinderella service, but instead a strong partner for change that has a clear and valued voice around the table.
Our greatest challenge probably lies in the transition between school and post-16 education, and specifically how to make sure young people have the opportunity to follow a high-quality vocational pathway. Right now, this is a key weakness in the system.
Too often young people aren’t aware of the opportunities of vocational pathways and they aren’t able to access the opportunities that do exist. The key to unlocking the potential of all learners sits within the possibility of a new partnership between schools and further education colleges. The creation of a new pathway at 14-19 can unlock opportunities for all learners, regardless of the route they want to pursue.
New proposals from Qualifications Wales for a pre-vocational offer at 14-16 could be a first step toward this new type of partnership. However, they will be fatally flawed if, as originally presented, they are seen as being delivered in schools and by schools. If implemented in this way it will do little more than tick the vocational box, but it will not come close to the meaningful and lasting change we need.
There is increasing and widespread recognition that the proposal for a new suite of pre-vocational qualifications need to be delivered by appropriately qualified practitioners and in facilities that meet industry standards. It is inescapable that, in the overwhelmingly majority of cases, high quality provision can only be secured if delivered in FE.
We have set three clear tests for the proposals that we believe are essential if learners are to have the choice of high-quality vocational pathway:
- Learners to have access to independent advice and guidance to help them make informed decisions about their own futures;
- Courses to be led by appropriately qualified practitioners with industry relevant experience;
- Provision to take place in high-quality and vocational specialist environments. A construction course being delivered in a school classroom won’t inspire the next generation but will instead give them a partial, inadequate experience.
We should inspire learners about the vast possibilities of vocational and technical education. Doing anything less would be to fall short of true parity of esteem.
However, qualifications are only part of the answer. Creating meaningful routes into vocational and technical education also requires a policy solution where we can create proper partnerships between schools and local colleges. By working together, and with additional funding, we can widen the all too narrow choice at GCSE that we know doesn’t work for so many of our young people.
These opportunities could mean more school pupils having the opportunity to study vocational pathways in college for part of their week. Other options should include the rollout of the successful Junior Apprenticeship scheme. It would be the radical and bold policy choice that could propel Wales into a different league in terms of the recognition and value we place on vocational options.
There are moments in policy making when seemingly small decisions can have lasting impacts on people’s lives. Over the next few months Ministers, officials and regulators will have a series of decisions that will affect the lives of young people across Wales. They must remember and honour the collective and long-standing commitment to parity of esteem for vocational and technical education.
A report for Welsh Government
Report providing recommendations to improve the experience of learners transitioning to employment.
Hefin Davies MS, June 2023
Lucy Hopkins, Communications Manager