Review of Vocational Education: The Wolf Report for the Department of Education

The Second Gender and Education Association Policy Report (March 2011)

Alison Wolf’s report on education for 14-19 year olds, commissioned by the English Government in Autumn 2010, has received rapturous acclaim in the media, policy and government circles. For example, the Guardian’s editorial on March 4th 2011 was entitled FE colleges. Who’s Afraid of Alison Wolf? It argued that Wolf ‘has blown a gale through the cosy consensus. She understands that overly involved employers will grab subsidies for specific training that they would anyway have had to provide.’ And her recommendations are commended for their ‘acuity’.

Addressing the question of the provision of vocational education for a cohort of two and a half million young people aged 14-19, the report is written in a racy and readable, no-nonsense style which cuts through a morass of policy verbiage and confusion. It presents a clear statement about the problems of the growth of education and youth unemployment for 14-19 year olds, and argues for simplification and autonomy for institutions, in a complex and previously muddled system. With 27 recommendations, Wolf argues for a core system of provision for 14-16 year olds, and more optional and local provisions for 16–19 year olds, suited to the flexible needs of local labour markets, and encouraging young people to continue with education with potentially  greater economic returns. She also points to the long-term disadvantages for young people of being NEET – not in employment, education or training.

Recommendations include:

1. The DfE should distinguish clearly between those qualifications, both vocational and academic, which can contribute to performance indicators at Key Stage 4, and those which cannot. The decision criteria should be explicit and public. They will include considerations of depth and breadth (including consultation with/endorsement by relevant outside bodies), but also assessment and verification arrangements which ensure that national standards are applied to all candidates.

2. At Key Stage 4, schools should be free to offer any qualifications they wish from a regulated Awarding Body whether or not these are approved for performance measurement purposes, subject to statutory/health and safety requirements.

3. DfE should review current policies for the lowest-attaining quintile of pupils at Key Stage 4, with a view to greatly increasing the proportion who are able to progress directly onto Level 2 programmes at age 16. Performance management indicators and systems should not give schools incentives to divert low-attaining pupils onto courses and qualifications which are not recognised by employers or accepted by colleges for progression purposes.

4. 16-19 year old students pursuing full time courses of study should not follow a programme which is entirely ‘occupational’, or based solely on courses which directly reflect, and do not go beyond, the content of National Occupational Standards. Their programmes should also include at least one qualification of substantial size (in terms of teaching time) which offers clear potential for progression either in education or into skilled employment. Arrangements for part-time students and work-based 16-18 year olds will be different but the design of learning programmes for such students should also be considered.

5. Funding for full-time students age 16-18 should be on a programme basis, with a given level of funding per student. (This can and should be adjusted for differences in the content-related cost of courses, and for particular groups of high-need student.) The funding should follow the student.

6. There should continue to be no restrictions placed on a young person’s programme in terms of which level or type of qualification they can pursue. If it is appropriate for a student or apprentice to move sideways (or indeed ‘downwards’) in order to change subject or sector, that is their choice.

7. Employers who take on 16-18 year old apprentices should be eligible for payments (direct or indirect), because and when they bear some of the cost of education for an age-group with a right to free full- time participation. Such payments should be made only where 16-18 year old apprentices receive clearly identified off-the-job training and education, with broad transferable elements.

8. DfE should introduce a performance indicator which focuses on the whole distribution of performance within a school, including those at the top and bottom ends of the distribution.

9. At college and school level the assessment and awarding processes used for vocational awards should involve local employers on a regular basis. Awarding bodies should demonstrate, when seeking recognition, how employers are involved directly in development and specification of qualifications.


Are then the employment needs and education of girls exactly identical with those of boys? What are the gender dimensions contained in this report? Nothing at all is said on this. Whilst the report is written by an articulate woman economist with the research evidence of innumerable women researchers and colleagues peppered throughout, this is the beginning and end of a gender dimension. Yet Wolf argues (p. 105) that ‘the labour market has changed in ways which make the transition to employment far harder for today’s teenagers than for their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.’

Having just ‘celebrated’ International Women’s Day (IWD) and its centenary, it is hard not to ask  whether  the transitions to employment were different for grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers and how previous inequalities map onto the more problematic transitions for young women versus young men today? In other words, to what extent, if at all,have gender differences been transformed by the changes in the labour market and allied forms of education?

Given the gender silence and the clear classed nature of this new policy research field, it is hard to credit that Wolf’s recommendations will provide for the equality of opportunity for girls and boys from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds. Whilst there is plenty of evidence to suggest that girls have improved their educational achievements relative to boys, at the core level that Wolf argues for, they do not continue to benefit from further and higher education. And lack of child care facilities prevent young mothers (teenage motherhood remains a policy concern) from continuing through; neither do these young women initially choose an educational route. Rather they choose full-time motherhood until their children are of school-age.

Welcome though Wolf’s no nonsense approach is, it conceals more than it reveals and leaves untouched the psycho-social and socio-economic issues for young women and young men. The overarching question about the ‘immiseration’ (to use Marx’s phrase) or increasing poverty of the working classes with the impending Coalition cuts in public services is ignored, as are the effects on the very young people who are least advantaged by the education system. And as Wolf readily acknowledges, this group is likely to have increasing levels of unemployment, given that youth unemployment relative to older workers, is on the rise throughout Europe. So the primary question for GEA is whether this report, which has already been accepted by the Government, merely reinforces the inequitable system that it is said to replace.

Miriam E. David, GEA Policy Officer






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