Media Release

New report suggests ‘Berlin Wall’ between vocational and academic education crumbling

A new report from the Social Market Foundation has found that the ‘Berlin Wall’ between vocational and academic education is crumbling, with the number of pupils who do not qualify for Free School Meals taking a vocational course increasing threefold over the last decade.

The report, Passports to Progress, also reveals that more and more academically able pupils are taking vocational qualifications – 37% of pupils with five good GCSEs went on to do KS5 vocational courses in 2015, up from just 8% in 2006.

However the report, supported by Pearson, suggests that parental attitudes lag behind these changes, with wealthier parents remaining more sceptical about vocational education, particularly as a route to higher education, while lower-income parents were more positive about it.

Director of the Social Market Foundation, Emran Mian, said:

“This report shows that the ‘Berlin Wall’ between academic and vocational qualifications is crumbling. Many more pupils are taking both types of qualifications; and an increasing proportion of young people who achieve five good passes at GCSE are going on to take vocational qualifications too. But parental attitudes lag behind these changes. Improving the perception of the quality of vocational qualifications is therefore of ongoing importance.

“The UK has struggled to provide the right balance of academic and vocational education to suit the choices of young people and the needs of the economy. In particular, vocational education has been under-valued and treated as second-best to academic qualifications.

“We must recognise the challenges that some schools experience – for example, capacity, access to facilities and the demands of the accountability system – in providing vocational qualifications.”

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK, commented:

“Too often the debate around vocational study is about whether it should enable further study or deliver skills for a specific occupation. This report shows that young people would rather have the best of both worlds, so they are increasingly choosing a blend of academic and technical options.

“I welcome this – education is surely at its best when it keeps people’s options open and helps them to get to where they want to be.”

The research, which forms part of the work programme for the SMF’s cross-party Commission on Inequality in Education, draws on new analysis of data from the National Pupil Database, an exclusive nationally representative poll of almost 1000 parents of children aged 14-18, and interviews with nine headteachers from schools in nine of the ten geographical regions of England and Wales.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Over the last decade, the number of vocational courses completed at Key Stage (KS5) rose by 179% to reach just over 400,000 in 2015. This rapid increase came alongside very steady take-up of academic courses: 935,000 academic KS5 courses were completed in 2015, compared to 933,000 in 2006.
  • Much of the increase in vocational courses is due to increased take-up of BTECs. The number of pupils completing BTECs rose from 45,000 to 150,000 over the decade. This compares with an increase from 12,000 to 44,000 for other types of vocational qualification.
  • Take-up varies by pupil background. 66% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) completed a vocational course in 2015, compared to 44% of pupils not eligible for FSM. However, take-up among non-FSM pupils has shot up, from 14% to 44%.
  • There is also a big rise in the take-up of vocational qualifications among those who have done well at Key Stage 4. 37% of those who achieved 5 A* to C grades went on to do KS5 vocational qualifications in 2015 – up from just 8% in 2006.
  • Parents in high income households are more likely to agree that academic qualifications provide pupils with a high quality education. 84% of parents in households with an annual income of £70,000 or over agreed; but just 70% of parents in households with an income of less than £20,000 did so.
  • Differences also exist when parents are asked whether vocational qualifications provide pupils with good prospects of going onto university. 54% of parents in households with an annual income of less than £20,000 agreed; but just 36% of parents in households with an income of £70,000 or over did so.
  • Headteachers emphasised the value of vocational qualifications in expanding the options available to pupils. Many thought it important to include vocational qualifications in their curriculum in order to create sufficient flexibility for pupils with different styles of learning, aspirations, and abilities.
  • Some headteachers acknowledged that, prior to the recent policy changes, there had been some ‘gaming’ of league tables. For instance, there was acknowledgement that some schools had decided to offer vocational courses with equivalence to four GCSEs because of the advantages this gives for league table rankings, rather than the value of the course itself.
  • Headteachers thought that, since the Wolf Report was published, the quality of vocational courses has risen considerably. The improvement in quality is at odds with a continued perception that vocational qualifications are an ‘easy option’.


Notes to editors:
A copy of Passports to progress: How do vocational qualifications help young people in building their careers? is available on request.

The findings of the research will be published at a panel event on Thursday 7 July 2016, 09.00-10.00 at the British Academy, London.

Social Market Foundation Director Emran Mian is available for interview.

About the Social Market Foundation:
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

Media enquiries:
To interview the report author or for further details about the research, please contact Sean O’Brien.



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