There are times when I shy away from updating this blog for fear of repeating myself especially when, due to the cyclical nature of the academic year, similar stories and debates annually bubble up to the surface of the education pond. It does seem though this year has seen a more forthright clash about vocational vs academic pathways in the post GCSE/A Level results haze which has pricked me out of my summer slumber.
As ever, it’s probably unhelpful to talk about “sides” in this discussion but, as I want to go on to show, those whose jobs it is to promote either vocational or academic routes are making this an impossible achievement.
This summer saw those promoting vocational routes releasing a report on A Level results day that claimed to show that the Higher Education Statistics Agency was in cahoots with the Higher Education Funding Council to juke the graduate destination statistics. Edge claim that, when looking at destinations within 6 months of graduating, both organisations were including non graduate level roles in their definition of “professional roles.” Which may be true but using that to bash HE takes a very short-sighted view of the possible value a degree can bring to a whole career.
A few days later, HESA continued on its way with the release of its longitudinal study of 2011 HE leavers and what they were up to three and a half years later which included some impressive overall employment stats but, buried in the breakdowns, are the details which show the large disparities between course areas.
At this point a new player entered stage left when the Chartered Institute of Personal & Development stuck an oar in with a report that looked at how the labour market was reacting to the high percentages of graduates now working within it. Copy writers gleefully jumped on the headline statistics while, in reality, the actual report is a thoughtful take on the complex demands, needs and evolution of a labour market and how it has (or has completely failed) to alter its hiring, training and promotion practices to reflect this new reality.
The final piece of the summer PR jigsaw mess was this rather strange front page of the Independent which lead on a Alison Wolf quote on the Government’s 3 million apprenticeship target.
As a example of ‘unhelpful PR noise’ it’s the worst offender in this summer’s entries. The problem is that there are plenty of kernels of actual issues in that piece. Many young people feel that some Apprenticeships are ‘slave labour,’ there is a problem with PR façade the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills constructs about Apprenticeships and the actual reality of the numbers of young people doing them and achieving the 3 million target will probably involve lots of statistical juggling not a lot of which helps actual young people. Unfortunately, splashing across the front page that every Level 2 apprenticeship is a “dead-end trainee scheme” does just as much damage to the Apprenticeship brand in the mind of school leavers and their parents as those issues could potentially do. For many of those young people who do secure a Level 2 Apprenticeship after school, it will be a hugely positive and beneficial early step into the world of work.
Ultimately, what’s behind all of this PR jousting is the constrictions in funding. The age-old story for the battle for bums on seats and the cash that follows them. The problem is though, this isn’t likely to get any better. This year saw huge numbers of applicants to HE and this is at the start of a period of unrestricted student numbers. With caps lifted, strong HE institutions will grow and it will be those who highlight the employment worth of their courses that will see the benefits. Meanwhile the vocational providers will be dealing with the introduction of the Apprenticeship levy and falling funding across FE providers. If the approach of this summer is anything to go by, this landscape will not engender cooperation. Only finger-pointing and shouting across the barricades of vocational vs academic.
The noise needed to grab a fleeting headline has become so loud that, I think, we’re now not helping going through the system. Imagine a parent of a school or college leaver this summer, so proud of their child’s achievements, worried about the choices they have made and the choices they haven’t. From the recent barrage of headlines and news stories, where would you draw comfort that your son or daughter was beginning the right path? The finger-pointing from both sides at the negatives of the other side doesn’t have much room for nuance and consideration and only leaves the damage of the headline. This also leaves those who are meant to promote the positives of all routes in a tricky situation. Teachers and advisers, or those that do bother wading through the hype to get to the truth, may well find that their message struggles to gain much notice from parents and students whose opinions have already been tarnished by this PR noise.