Vocational and academic: a false dichotomy (New pathways for technical education)

1 Nov

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

The Government has recently unveiled plans for the creation of 15 new technical education pathways. Pilot schemes will begin to operate from September 2019, with all 15 pathways becoming available by September 2022.

This radical shake-up of vocational education follows from recommendations published in Lord Sainsbury’s report on technical education. This report found that the current system of technical education was overly complex and was failing to provide the skills needed for a 21st century economy.

Currently, there are more than 21,000 vocational courses offered by 158 different awarding organisations. Under the new system, there will be 15 qualification routes available at levels 2 to 5. (Level 2 is equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C, and level 5 is equivalent to HND/Foundation Degree.)

Instead of the current situation where several awarding organisations are able to offer similar qualifications in a competitive arena, it appears that there will be one awarding body (or consortium) for each of the 15 pathways, at least for levels 2 and 3.

Prospective awarding bodies will be required to bid for a fixed-term licence to offer appropriate technical qualifications, but will need to work with employer panels to develop relevant specifications.

Delivery of these qualifications is likely to involve attendance at college plus appropriate work placements, and some will be tied to apprenticeship schemes.

The fifteen pathways comprise:

  • Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care
  • Business and Administrative
  • Catering and Hospitality
  • Childcare and Education
  • Construction
  • Creative and Design
  • Digital
  • Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Hair and Beauty
  • Health and Science
  • Legal, Finance and Accounting
  • Protective Services
  • Sales, Marketing and Procurement
  • Social Care
  • Transport and Logistics

Initially, there was a fear that the new proposals might prevent schools from offering vocational courses, such as BTECs, but it has since been confirmed that, as BTECs fall into the category of ‘applied general qualifications’, which are not designed to equip students with specialist knowledge and skills relevant to particular occupations, they will not fall foul of the new technical vocational initiative.

Vocational and academic: a false dichotomy

Nevertheless, these proposals re-open the long-running debate over the value of vocational education and its relationship to academic education. There is often a false dichotomy between academic and vocational education, as many academic subjects come to life when they are applied to occupational specialisms (for example, physics and space travel, biology and medicine, maths and engineering, English and journalism). Some subjects are simultaneously both academic and vocational (such as music, art, design and technology, computing, and modern foreign languages).

Attempts to separate academic learning from vocational studies have often led to an imparity of esteem, where academic skills are valued more highly than vocational ones. The aim of all education, whether construed as academic or vocational, should be to enable people to develop essential knowledge and skills that will facilitate progression to whatever social and economic roles are commensurate with their aptitudes and interests.

It is important that appropriate support, funding and guidance are made available so that implementation of the recommendations can be fully resourced, promoted and publicised. This should include access to high quality careers information, advice and guidance, including one-to-one face-to-face provision, so that young people are adequately assisted to make appropriate and well-informed decisions about which options to pursue.

It is also important to ensure that appropriate training opportunities are available to teachers and support staff so that they can enhance their understanding of employability and modern work skills.

Article written for November  2016 Your Voice

Further information


New: Further Education and Technology Bill

BIS research papers

Technical education overhaul unveiled by Skills Minister

Technical education reform: impact assessmentBIS and DfE

Post-16 skills plan and independent report on technical education

Understanding the further education market


Ofqual’s response to government’s post-16 skills plan


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6 Responses to “Vocational and academic: a false dichotomy (New pathways for technical education)”

  1. Patrick Timms 01. Nov, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    I agree completely with the “false dichotomy” idea. We British really are terrible for this sometimes – we get into “either/or thinking” very easily. Without meaning to digress, the Syria vote in the Commons last December was another very good example of this. Either we bomb people but support our allies, or we leave them alone but betray our allies… why was there no thinking in the middle? Personally, I’d have used an EMP – technology can be rebuilt, without harming critical national infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals, and innocent people would have been protected.

    In much the same vein, we see here a debate around a straight choice: people can either be trained academically or vocationally, just as we can either allow academic selection by examination at age 11, or we continue to outlaw it (in a related issue).

    I commented on a different article here and some of that could be relevant to this topic as well:


  2. Richard Fraser 01. Nov, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

    Voice Scotland: “Break down the false dichotomy”:

  3. Richard Fraser 08. Feb, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    General Secretary’s article in SecEd:

  4. Richard Fraser 06. Mar, 2017 at 9:26 am #

    “What are ‘T-levels’?” (Schools Week)

  5. Richard Fraser 02. Jun, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    TES: “Why vocational education calls out to everyone” https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/why-vocational-education-calls-out-everyone

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