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Do we really need to ‘aggressively sell’ vocational education?

When I read in today’s TES that apprenticeships should be “aggressively sold” I found it hard to see past my emotional reaction to the title: Aggressive sales techniques make me think of cold callers and pensioners – a far cry from supporting parents and pupils to make informed choices about high quality qualifications. On top of that, The Daily Mail and the Telegraph both described Wilshaw’s proposal as ‘streaming’ – a phrase guaranteed to stir educationalists into passionate and polarised debate about the very foundations of what education should be. The thing is, was this actually what he was trying to say? The rest of Wilshaw’s speech shows him joining the national chorus of “we need better quality careers advice” and trotting out that favourite of phrases “parity of esteem”. However, at the heart of his speech lies an important vision: one in which clusters, or federations, of schools and colleges work together to provide a range of qualifications and courses to suit all students.

UTCs and Studio Schools were designed to take a range of students, not just ‘low ability’ or ‘non academic’ pupils. Concerns that his speech was a ‘tacit backing for a revival of academic selection’ therefore reveal more about what Laura McInerney and I have described as implicit snobbery over vocational education, than about the existing situation. More important however, were Wilshaw’s ideas about easing student transferability between institutions. These could be very exciting depending on how far the government takes the requisite restructuring and whether the challenges in rural areas with few schools can be resolved. If students on any path were free to access specialist teaching in other institutions, many of the issues with Raising the Participation Age (RPA) (such as schools rejecting GCSE ‘failures’ and the challenge for FE teachers of delivering GCSE English and Maths effectively) would be significantly reduced.

Wilshaw argued that we were “at a watershed moment in the history of our education system”, and that there had never been a “better opportunity to tackle our lamentable record on vocational education.” If we really could go beyond encouraging collaboration between institutions and instead restructure accountability measures to focus on clusters of schools it would mean that:

• Teachers could be deployed across clusters – for example GCSE English and Maths teachers could support post 16 resits wherever they were delivered.

• Institutions would have nothing to gain by recruiting or holding onto students who would be more suited to other pathways as the results of students in the whole cluster would be just as important as in individual schools/colleges.

• Information, Advice and Guidance could be provided for students across a cluster, and schools would not demonstrate the same bias of trying to hold onto their top performers.

• Students could experience all of the institutions and their specialisms from Year 7 (or below) to ease transitions and help them make informed choices.

And finally, we could all avoid the confrontational vocabulary – and no one need be ‘aggressively sold’ anything.

So, before we pounce on Wilshaw for a few ill judged turns of phrase, let’s look at the substance and opportunity behind the headlines.

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