Passports to Progress: How do vocational qualifications help young people in building their careers?

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.

In an attempt to correct the imbalance, successive governments have sought to expand and improve opportunities in vocational education. This research examines how take up has changed in recent years; how parents view vocational qualifications; and the issues school leaders contend with when deciding what courses to offer.

We will be releasing further analysis on how vocational qualifications support young people in building their careers.

Trends in the take-up of academic and vocational qualifications

Using data from the National Pupil Database, we demonstrate some big changes in take-up.

  • Over the last decade, the number of vocational courses completed at Key Stage 5 (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.

Head-teachers’ attitudes towards vocational qualifications

We interviewed nine head-teachers, from schools in nine of the ten geographical regions in England and Wales, to understand their views on vocational qualifications.

  • Head-teachers 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.
  • Vocational courses can have a crucial role in stimulating and motivating pupils. The effect on motivation can prevent pupils from dropping out and has a positive impact on their other studies. Head-teachers felt that, if pupils were unable to succeed in any of their subject choices, this can have a strong adverse effect on their motivation, well-being and mental health. Vocational courses can be very important in this regard to pupils achieving less well academically.
  • Recommending a combination of vocational and academic courses to pupils is very common. Choosing an appropriate combination can lead to some students performing much better than they would have by following a ‘pure’ academic or vocational route. Some head-teachers felt the distinction itself between academic and vocational courses is misleading, since some vocational courses have significant academic content, and vice versa.
  • Schools face staff, cost and demand constraints to offering vocational courses. For example, a particular vocational course can only be offered where a ‘critical mass’ of students wish to take it. However, schools can increase the number of subject choices they offer by allowing pupils to take vocational subjects externally – for example, at a local Further Education College.
  • Concerns over the eligibility of courses for inclusion in league tables can have a very significant influence over head-teachers’ curriculum decisions. The English and Welsh Baccalaureate requirements have created constraints for schools in terms of the subjects they feel able to offer. However, some head-teachers are continuing to offer courses that cannot be included in league tables because they feel it is the right thing to do for their students.

Some head-teachers 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.

Head-teachers 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’.

Parents’ attitudes towards vocational qualifications

We conducted a poll of parents with children aged between 14 and 18 and found:

  • Parents are more likely to think that academic qualifications provide students with a high quality education (77% agree) than they are to think vocational qualifications do (69% agree). 72% agree that a combination of academic and vocational qualifications taken together provide students with a high quality education.
  • The pattern is different when parents are asked about the value of different qualifications for employment prospects. 74% agree that academic qualifications provide good employment prospects; 77% agree that vocational qualifications provide good employment prospects; and 79% agree that a combination of academic and vocational qualifications taken together provide good employment prospects.
  • The differences are much larger when parents are asked about prospects of pupils going to a university of their choice. 84% agree that academic qualifications provide good prospects; but just 44% agree that vocational qualifications provide good prospects. A combination of academic and vocational qualifications is somewhere in between, with 55% agreeing.
  • 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.


The binary divide between academic and vocational qualifications is breaking down. Many more pupils are taking both types of qualifications; and an increasing proportion of young people who are meeting the standard of 5 GCSEs at A*-C are going on to take vocational qualifications too.

Parental attitudes lag behind these changes. Improving the perception of the quality of vocational qualifications is therefore of ongoing importance.

At the same time, we should recognise the challenges that some schools experience – for example, capacity, access to facilities and the demands of the accountability system – in providing vocational qualifications. Especially as we tackle the next stage of our research  – analysing the returns from vocational qualifications and how effective they are in supporting young people to build their careers – we will consider how best to overcome these challenges.

Download The Report: PDF

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