Vocational Education

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Vocational Education

Introduction: Vocational Education: Recent History

It has been argued that although on of the key functions of education systems is to meet the needs of the economy for a skilled work force the UK education system has failed to fulfil this function effectively and the increasing competitive pressures associated with neoliberal globalisation have highlighted this issue even more clearly. From the 1980s UK governments have adopted policies involving the quasi-marketisation of English as a framework for the improvement of overall education standards and have also introduced a range of policies designed to increase the vocational relevance of the education system.

Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan had focused on this issue in his Ruskin College speech designed to stimulate a “Great Debate on Education” but it was subsequent the Conservative Governments of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which introduced policies which came to be known as “The New Vocationalism. These policies included the introduction of work experience schemes, a new Certificate in Pre-Vocational Education for 16–18-year-olds, TVEI initiatives designed to focus on matters of commercial and industrial relevance within the school curriculum and Youth Training Schemes designed to improve employability. There followed successive attempts to provide for vocational education by new courses such as NVQs and GNVQs, the Advanced Certificate in Vocational Education, Vocational GCSEs and Applied Advanced Level GCEs, BTEC Nationals, OCR Nationals, the Technical Baccalaureate and  T Levels.

Following the General Election of 2017 as a result of which the Conservatives were returned as a Minority Government supported by the D.U.P. Prime Minister Theresa May announced the setting up of the review of Post 18 Education and Funding Higher Education under the chairmanship of Philip Augur and in its Report published in May 2019 the Committee recommended the reduction of university tuition fees to £7500 p.a.  but also emphasised the need for significant reforms and increased funding of Further Education which, the Report suggested, could contribute significantly to the reduction in the UK’s skills gap.

The reduction in university tuition fees was not implemented [although they were frozen at £9250 p.a. in January 2021] but as she left office Theresa May did emphasise the importance of the reform of Further Education as dis Boris Johnson on taking up the role of Prime Minister. Damien Hinds was soon   replaced as Education Secretary by Gavin Williamson who announced in July 2020 that the 50% target for the entrance of young people to Higher Education [first announced by Tony Blair in1999] was to be abolished because in Williamson’s view too many graduates had been educated for jobs which were unavailable while non-entrants to university were being denied the opportunity to train for the technology- based occupations where more jobs were becoming available. Britain, he said, should seek to learn from the German education system which was far more effective in training technologically skilled workers. Click here and here for the scrapping of the 50% HE target.  This was followed by a Whitepaper published in January 2021and entitled   Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth. The White Paper is long and complex and has attracted equally detailed analysis. I shall not pursue these technicalities here  but interested students may click here and here and here for further information.

* One imagines that any contraction of Higher Education courses will fall on Arts , Humanities and Social Sciences courses rather than on STEM courses



Vocational Education: An Outline of Current Provisions


In summary the main aspects of current provision for vocational provision in English schools and colleges are as follows.

Students aged 14-16 may take GCSE courses in about 12 vocational subjects although take up of several of these subjects is small.

Students aged 14-16 may take OCR Nationals and BTEC First courses often alongside their GCSE courses. Click here for a list of OCR Nationals available

Students aged 16-18 may take GCE Applied Advanced Level courses although again take up of such courses is limited.

The WJEC also offers Applied Certificates and Applied Diplomas in Criminology.

Students can take BTEC National courses organised by the Pearson Group and National Courses organised by OCR. [The Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examination Board] .  Very useful additional information on BTec Firsts and BTec Nationals can be found here and here.

It is important to note that BTEC and OCR National courses are so-called Advanced General Courses designed for students wishing to study a broad vocational rea rather than to prepare for a particular occupation.

Individuals may also take a very wide range of vocational courses at a range of different levels which enable learners to gain the knowledge and skills required for a particular job.  A recent BBC article states, toward the end of the article, that “according to Ofqual there are currently 12,000 vocational qualifications at all levels offered by more than 150 awarding organisations” and that there are apparently “34 different qualifications available for plumbing alone.”

In 2010 The Coalition Government announced the intention to set up a number of University Technical Colleges to extend the provision on of vocational education. However, while some have been successful others have attracted criticism as in indicated here and here  and here . However, these videos do show UTCs in a positive light. Here is more information.

In 2013 the Coalition Government announced the introduction of a Technical Baccalaureate for 16–18-year-olds for first teaching in 2017. This would not be a new course but a qualification containing elements of numeracy literacy and “high quality” vocational education in much the same way as the EBacc amalgamates several GCSE subjects. Click here for further information on the Technical Baccalaureate.

T Levels

The Introduction of T levels was announced in   for first teaching in September 2020 with plans to increase the number of T Levels between 2020 and 2023.The T Level Qualification has been presented as a high- quality technical qualification designed with the help of industry representatives which is the equivalent of three GCS Advanced Levels and will prepare students for the transition to skilled employment, Higher Education or Advanced Apprenticeships. The expansion of T Level courses is to be combined with the scrapping of 4000-5000 post-GCSE vocational qualifications in a   move designed to simplify the overall provision of vocational education. The following links provide information on the nature of these courses

Click here  for BBC explanation of T levels.

Click here for a useful video from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

Click here  for DFE information on T Levels

Click here for BBC coverage of announcement: Education Ministers to pull plug on 5000 post GCSE qualifications.

However, concerns have been raised that some of the qualifications which have been scrapped are actually courses which help students with low GCSE grades to transition to higher level courses and that the Transition Course which is to replace them may be less suitable than the courses which are being scrapped. It is also suggested, although this remains uncertain, that T Levels will replace existing BTEC and OCR National Courses but critics  have argued  against this on the grounds  that although it is reasonable to scrap some poorly subscribed courses  most of these courses remain useful in their own right [although there have been criticisms of grade inflation] these courses are useful in their own right and useful also to students who wish to combine BTEC/ OCR courses and GCE Advanced Level courses.

Click here  and for some further discussion of these criticisms  which, as reported  here by the Guardian, have recently been reiterated by former Conservative Secretary of State for Education Lord Baker.


Vocational education is provided also by means of Apprenticeships which may involve a combination of on-the-job training and college attendance leading to a recognised qualification.

Apprenticeships were for many years associated primarily with the skilled manual trades such as plumbing, engineering and building but nowadays the main sectors providing apprenticeships are Business, Administration and Law, Engineering and Manufacture, Health Public Services and Care and Retail and Commercial Enterprises. Click here for a little historical information on Apprenticeships

Consequently, there are now more female than male apprentices and there are significant gender differences in the choice of apprenticeships in different sectors.

Apprenticeships may currently be undertaken at 4 levels: Intermediate, Advanced and Higher equivalent to GCSE Level , Advanced Level , Higher and Degree Levels as is indicated here  About 13,500 people began Degree Apprenticeships in 2018/19 which represents only a small proportion of all apprenticeships

There are many good schemes which should ensure career progression but considerable concern has been expressed as to the quality of some Intermediate Level apprenticeships and it has also been argued that the introduction of the Apprenticeships Levy in 2017 has discouraged employers from taking on apprentices

Click here for The Free Degrees [BBC 2017]

Click here for Apprenticeships: 8 things you need to know [BBC 2018]

Click here    for a report stating that firms are relabelling low-skilled jobs as apprenticeships [BBC 2018]

Click here  for employers’ view that the Apprenticeship Levy is not working [BBC2018]

Click here   for Apprenticeship versus University [BBC 2019]

Click here for Apprenticeships pledge will be missed [BBC 2019]

Click here for a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper providing recent statistics on apprenticeships

Click here for Apprentices and pandemic [BBC 2020]

Click here   for a recent [February 2021] Guardian item on Degree Apprenticeships

Click here   for SMC Report indicating that Apprenticeships are not delivering social mobility [BBC 2021]

Click here for continuing BBC coverage of Apprenticeships


Criticisms of Vocational Education Initiatives

Marxists and other radicals have been critical of education systems in capitalist societies on the grounds that they essentially prepare mainly working class pupils to accept without question the low skill, low status, low paid jobs without which the capitalist system cannot survive. Vocational education initiatives would be criticised from these perspectives on the grounds that they deny students the opportunity to understand and oppose the structural inequalities of capitalist societies. For an insight into these perspectives, you might like to watch this short video presented by Professor Henry Giroux.

Also, however, even among those who believe that vocational education initiatives are useful because they provide pupils with the opportunity to increase their employability and hence their living standards it is argued that the organisation of vocational education in the UK leaves much to be desired

Throughout the last 40 years vocational education initiatives have attracted considerable criticism although it is at least arguable that in some cases they may have been more effective in recent years. The following criticisms have been made.

The training schemes introduced for young unemployed workers often offered little meaningful training and were seen as a means of providing industry with a pool of cheap labour while massaging the unemployment statistics downward. Young people were often simply dismissed at the end of their training schemes which enabled employers to take on another batch of low paid employers rather than to employ permanent workers at reasonable wage levels.

Work experience schemes for school students were often too short to offer any real insights into the working environment.

Successive UK Governments have prioritised traditional academic subjects at the expense of vocational education and also prioritised spending on Higher Education at the expense of Further Education.

It has also been widely argued that UK governments have given less attention to vocational education than do foreign governments and that has been one important factor inhibiting the efficiency of the UK work force. [ The recent White Paper {see below} noted that that far more German workers than UK workers have technological qualifications and that this discrepancy needs to be addressed.

Parents and pupils have continued to believe that GCSE and GCE Advanced Level courses in established academic subjects offered the best prospects for university entrance and career progress while vocational courses had lower status and were unlikely to be taken up by ambitious high-achieving students.

Vocational courses were therefore offered disproportionately to working class students but it also came to be argued that most employers were unimpressed by some vocational courses so that vocational qualifications were in practice unlikely to improve working class students’ employment prospects.

It was also claimed that since students were obliged to choose their options at the end of Year 9 this meant that some students’ educational opportunities [ particularly the prospect of entry into HE] were being foreclosed at too early an age even if it was possible to opt for a mixture of vocational courses and orthodox GCSE courses.

There have also been criticisms that some apprenticeship schemes provide little real training although this cannot be said of advanced apprenticeships. [See above for further details]

However some more recent developments in vocational education may have reduced the force of these criticisms to some extent.

In the Wolf Report published in 2011 it was stated that although there were many good apprenticeship schemes there were also many courses which "did not do people any good " and that students on vocational courses should be made to keep up with academic subjects such as Mathematics and English. According to the review between 1/4 and 1/3 of 16–19-year-old students were on courses which do not lead to jobs or training schemes and this view was supported by another expert, Professor Lorna Unwin, who was especially critical of Level 1 and 2 NVQ courses which were deemed equivalent to GCSEs. and who stated that "There are too many people at the lower levels. These courses do not give progression because the qualifications are just not good enough." [Quoted in The Guardian]. Soon the Coalition Government responded to the Wolf Review in no uncertain terms by removing several thousand vocational qualifications from the school league tables although it remained abundantly clear that vocational education has a very important role to play within the overall education system. [Click here and here and here for some further information],


It was hoped that the setting up of University Technical Colleges would improve the profile of vocational courses and it was pointed outed out that students who attended UTCs could take vocational courses alongside orthodox GCSE courses. Unfortunately, however, some UTCs have not been particularly effective in delivering vocational education courses

Increasingly Higher Education Institutions have accepted BTEC National and OCR National qualifications as H.E. entry qualifications and, as is indicated here, increasing numbers of students have entered H.E. on the basis of these qualifications.

The current Conservative Government hopes that Technical Baccalaureate, the introduction of T levels and the proposals to reform Further Education which have been put forward in the January 2021 White Paper “Skills for Jobs: Life Long Learning for Opportunity and Growth” will help to address these problems. However as mentioned above the proposed expansion of the T Level Programme has attracted criticism on the grounds that it is likely to lead to the discontinuation of popular BTEC National and OCR National courses which have facilitated university entrance in recent years.

Time will tell whether this latest reorganisation of vocational education will be successful.

You may click here for information on patterns of gender differences in the choice of vocational subjects.