Raising the Participation Age: time to get vocational?

The participation age will rise to 18 from 2015. How can vocational education and training contribute to implementing this policy?

Teacher and student using a sawing machineFrom 2015, all young people in England will have to stay in some form of education or training until the age of 18. They do not have to stay in school, but they will no longer be able to enter the job market full-time at 16 and wave a complete goodbye to education at the same time.

This is a significant change in our education system, and presents a range of challenges and opportunities.

Recent figures indicate the scale of the challenge if this ‘raising of the participation age’ (RPA) is to be realised. In the final quarter of 2012, there were 153,000 16-18 year olds Not in Employment, Education or Training – NEETs, in the jargon. This is a significant number of young people to reintegrate into the education system over the next couple of years. In fact, the potential numbers involved in RPA are even larger than this, because that total does not include 16-18 year olds who were in employment without training, an option that RPA is designed specifically to minimise. There were a total of 280,000 16-18 year olds Not in Education or Training (NET) in the final quarter of 2012, around 15 per cent of this age cohort.

A further issue is suggested by the fact that there were 893,000 18-24 year-old NEETs in the final quarter of 2012. Part of the aim for RPA is to ensure that today’s 16-18 year olds in education or training are developing vocational skills and employability that are relevant in the local labour market and which enable them to get and keep jobs. The large number of older NEETs implies that this is a significant challenge.

There is an opportunity here for vocational education and training (VET). It can play a key role in helping to support young people who are trying to join the labour market. Prue Huddleston (of the University of Warwick) and I have been taking a closer look at VET provision.

The vocational wish list

The ultimate aim of vocational education is to equip students with practical skills for a particular trade or career path. But some types of VET provision are more successful than others.

Using existing research, and examples of best practice, we’ve pulled together a wish list of the most important features that vocational courses need if they are to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and attributes necessary to progress successfully into the world of work. Here we point to a few elements that can dictate how effective VET courses are in fulfilling that aim.

Does what it says on the tin

It might seem obvious, but one of the most important points is that vocational programmes must actually help young people to develop the skills and knowledge needed for a particular vocation. Many schools have been offering so-called vocational programmes that in fact teach young people about a particular occupational area rather than giving them skills in that area. Learning about being an electrician and learning to be an electrician are two different endeavours.

Be well-resourced

Bona fide vocational programmes require substantial investment in terms of resources, and of staff with the occupational skills and knowledge needed to support young people’s learning.

Be valuable

Programmes must have some value in the job market. Young people need access to high quality information, advice and guidance, especially in relation to local job opportunities. Previous research has shown that young people are often on courses with no corresponding local job opportunities. 

Be flexible

Demanding, full-time programmes may not be suitable for all the learners who will be affected by RPA, especially current NEETs. Ensuring that these young people are catered for may be one of the greatest challenges on the educational landscape.

There is 20 years of research evidence on how to re-engage young people in learning. It has shown that flexibility in the time, place and pace of learning is valuable. It is also important to provide assessment and accreditation which are not burdensome and which allows credit to be built up over time. Many NEETs may also have social or emotional issues that need to be addressed before they can apply themselves to education, employment or training.

While raising the participation age has stimulated a welcome interest in vocational education and training, it’s crucial that the resulting courses be well-designed and well-planned if they are to offer genuine benefit to the thousands of students who will be affected by RPA from 2015.

Daniel Acquah

Those with an interest in RPA and the role of VET may want to check out the special issue of Research in Post-Compulsory Education entitled 'Reclaiming the Disengaged', or request a copy of the paper on which this blog is based.

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