Opinion: Gove’s message – “vocational” = “worthless”

Secretary of State for Education, Conservative Michael Gove, has downgraded the value of nearly all 14-16 vocational qualifications at a stroke.  I felt angry when I heard this.  However, it did little to reduce my respect for Mr Gove; I had very little anyway after ‘free’ schools, and his arrogant disregard of the role of Local Authorities to support ‘failing’ schools.

But having thought about this a little more, I am left perplexed by Gove’s decision. The impact goes against so much I thought was accepted wisdom.

Industry has for many years had a concern that school leavers do not have the skills and experience to meet employers’ needs.  Back in 2004 the Tomlinson Report had suggested new ways forward.  This opened up opportunities for more vocational education, and was cautiously welcomed by industry.

Clearly some vocational courses don’t have the academic rigour of one GCSE, let alone several.  But there are others that are academically challenging and both fill an educational niche and meet industry’s needs.

For example, young people from here in Derby have, for the last two years, had the opportunity to go to the new JCB Academy  in Rocester on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border.  This worked with exam board OCR , major local businesses like Rolls-Royce  and Toyota  and universities including Cambridge  and Warwick to develop new Engineering and Business Diplomas.  They integrate learning ‘horizontally’ across traditional subject areas, and were judged to be worth several GCSEs each.

Now Gove’s decision has shattered the specialist curriculum at the JCB Academy– the reason d’etre for their existence – declaring that their core specialist elements are worth only 1 GCSE each.

Will industry be as willing to participate in government initiatives in future if support in return is so fickle?

The Tomlinson Report was also generally well-received by the Liberal Democrats.  And key elements of its new vision for 14-19 education were included in our 2010 manifesto.  Some of these also found their way into the Coalition Agreement, such as

  • We will improve the quality of vocational education, including increasing flexibility for 14–19 year olds and creating new Technical Academies as part of our plans to diversify schools provision.


  • We will create more flexibility in the exams systems so that state schools can offer qualifications like the IGCSE.

At a stroke Gove has attacked this expectation of a wider range of qualifications, and alienated at least one of the only two new Technical Academies that have so far opened.  How many of the other Technical Academies in the pipeline will now withdraw from the process?  Less than 12 months ago his department was welcoming these and talking up the very qualifications he’s now rubbishing.

So what next?

Schools and colleges will now not just teach children to jump through the assessment hoops on which school performance is judged, but also the schools and exam boards will offer ‘vocational’ courses primarily designed to meet GCSE expectations.  Whether these will also meet industry’s needs and engage the more challenging pupils remains to be seen.

Maybe the worst point of all is the way this shows a severe lack of co-ordination between the Department of Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  Dave and Nick – please do something to bring these together!

* Lucy Care was a councillor in Derby from 1993-2010 and was a General Election Candidate in Derby in 2005 and 2010 She blogs at lucycare.net.

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  • I agree with Mr Gove’s decision. I don’t think he was trying to rubbish vocational qualifications, merely trying to stop people from comparing vocational qualifications to GCSEs.

    My thought is that GCSEs should be for book-based subjects – languages, maths, natural and social sciences. I am even slightly puzzled that arts subjects are included; I remember some friends of mine who are good artists but got poor grades in art. How can anyone give works of art an academic grade?

    Vocational qualifications obviously have their value, but to compare them on a par with book-based subjects strikes me as odd. I think Mr Gove was right to stop comparing vocational subjects to book-based subjects, but he should go one step further and create or strengthen a national standard for judging vocational subjects, i.e. what GCSEs are for book-based subjects, but without comparison to GCSEs. A revamp of BTECs, or raising their profile, for example, would help.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '12 - 12:13pm

    If you really believe the announcement by Gove “has downgraded the value of nearly all 14-16 vocational qualifications at a stroke” that is an indication they are of little value anyway.

    At one point there was the idea, I do not know if it ever got implemented, that passing the driving test should be allocated a certain number of UCAS points. Well, suppose it had and that the points it was given were equivalent to 5 GCSEs. Now suppose it, along with the qualifications you write about, were re-pointed at level to just one GCSE. Would that mean passing the driving test was downgraded? No, because we know it is a test which illustrates real useful skills – however many or few GCSEs some formula says it is equivalent to, we know it means some real ability and knowledge about driving cars.

    Qualifications, if they have any real value, should be about the skills they develop and assess, not about some arbitary accumulation of points. If a qualification is of real value, those who find it of value will appreciate it regardless of how many or how few points it scores on some arbitrary scale. So that is why if you get so worked up about these arbitrary points, it suggests they are the main thing that qualification has, that is, it has no real value.

    That is why I find the reaction of so many of those in education to Gove’s re-reckoning of various point systems to be worrying. If the teachers themselves think education is just about accummulating meaningless points, we are lost. They should be teaching what they themselves know to be of real value, ot what some polutician has deemed to be worth some points.

    I have a considerable amount of experience with vraious “vocational” qualifications. I was for a period of over ten years rthe admissions tutor for my university department (Computer Science) and we took on many school-leavers who came to us primarily with “vocational” qualifications. In general, the performance of those with those qualification was disappointing across the board – in all aspects of the subject, not just those which you might say are the more “academic” ones. That is, they did not seem to impart a measure better “vocational” skills to make up for less of the more abstract academic skills of the more traditional subjects. Rather, they seemed to lead to students who had a very formulaic approach to education, one which was very much about accummulating points, one which seemed to have far too much focus on memorising and reproducing definitions rather than exercising deeper skills.

    I’ll pause there and continue in another message.

  • Simon Morris 7th Feb '12 - 12:18pm

    I could not agree more with the article. As a chartered engineer myself I was appalled by this decision to such a point that I read the report for myself and cannot understand how Mr Gove can have come to this decision if he had actually read and understood the thrust of the argument. My understanding is that the report is saying that qualifications should provide the entry into either further education or jobs which the Engineering Diploma patently will. The study of engineering contains so many transferable skills in science, maths, technology,design and so on that I cannot understand how, considering it requires twenty hours per week study it can only be worth 1 GCSE equivalent. Personally I would have leapt at the chance to take this course if it had been available during my school days- but not to gain one GCSE! I am afraid that as long as we have journalists , lawyers and political researchers interfering with technical education issues I have little hope of things changing. I have written to Mr Gove and my own MP Michael Fabricant (who is also a Charteres Engineer) expressing my unhappiness with this decision. Why not consult the proffessional institutions through the Engineering Council before making such a precipitious decision – and it doesn’t exactly match up with the governments aim of re-balalncing the economy towards science, technology & engineering does It?

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Feb '12 - 12:44pm

    The real problem, I feel is not that “vocational = “worthless”, as you say, but that the vocational qualifications we have were pushed through on the cheap by clueless people i..e. New Labour.

    Real vocational education would be very expensive because it would involve real workplace training by people with deep experience in the skills. Not school-based training by teachers whose only real experiencde was a short training course. How many “business” qualifications are being taight by people with years of experience runnibng businesses? How many “IT” qualifications are being taught by people with years of experience as professional software developers? Very few. If it was going to be otherwise, the people doing the teaching would need to be paid the market value for their skills – which is a lot. Using my driving test analogy, it is as if there were a qualification in driving taught by people who had never driven and whose teaching was based on mugging up on the Highway Code.

    Now, New Labour consisted of technically clueless people who were very easily impressed by anything that put itself across as “New”, and their cluelessness extended to having little real understanding of statistics, and so too easily impressed by simplistic measuring devices such as qualifications points systems. So they were conned by those who sold them these “vocational” qualifications on the cheap. Too many of these qualifications did seem to insist underneath of reward for “coloring in” (I don’t mean literally, but I do mean work which seemed to be more about occupying time than imparting really useful skills), or about memorising and repeating definitions.

    Another part of the problem, which I have only slowly come to realise, is that teenagers lack the maturity and experience to get the best from vocational qualifications. If you have little experience of the “real world” much of what is intedned to be “vocational” seems as abstract as anything else, hence what could be of use to a more mature person degenerating into a meaningless memory test.

    Yet when one tried to voice one’s concern about this, one was pushed down, accused of “snobbery”, accused of being against the idea of useful education for all. Part of the reason for this was the gullibility of New Labour in taking for granted that when presented with (on the cheap) education labelled “vocational” it really was what it said on the tin.

    A big issue is the extent to what might seem “useless” abstract skills to a teenager from a poorly connected background are necessary to almost all professional careers. Consider, for example, Engineering. Try looking at the syllabus of a good Engineering degree. It is largely mathematics. Yet the idea that mathematics beyond primary school level is “useless” is commonplace in our society. It is, for example, pushed again and again by many the trendy arts graduates who dominate the media and commentariat. Sorry, but to be a proper engineer you need mathematics to at least A-level, it’s your most fundamental tool. That is why there is so much concern at pupils dropping things lie mathematics and picking up vague “vocational” qualifications – they are being fooled, deeply, they are having doors closed in their face, but they lack the maturity to see it.

    The message the employers are pushing out – it is what I get every time I ask employers what they really want – is that basic reasoning and language skills are what they really want, and our school-leavers and graduates seem to lack them. These skills are best developed by sticking to the more abstract and established subjects. I don’t agree with the Tory government on many things, but on this parts of Gove’s agenda (not the rest!) I am very much in agreement.

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Feb '12 - 12:49pm

    Well done Lucy Care. A very perceptive article highlighting the total havoc that Gove is creating at education.

    Where to start: forcing schools to become academies, thereby undermining local democracy; random introductions of free schools – to pander to pushy and paranoid middle class parents; downgrading of excellent academic and creative subjects to second-class status; micro-managing teaching yet claiming to want teachers to have the freedom to teach…..

    The contradictions in Gove’s thinking are there for all to see – why are the Lib Dems tyrning a blind eye to this dangerous ideologue? I only wish I was exaggerating.

  • I simply don’t agree with the premiss of this article.

    Either vocational courses teach academic subjects, in which case they can be examined using academic exams, or they don’t. If they don’t they’re testing something else which has its own value scale.

    I’m sorry Ms Care, but the “devaluing” is in the eye of the beholder. Those who understand the currency of these vocational qualifications, ie the potential employers, will value them if they are a good mearue of the sort of skills they are looking to employ.

  • Oh, and hear hear Mr Huntbach. I couldn’t agree more!

  • @Tabman – given that Michael Gove was urged to rethink this by senior figures in Boeing, Airbus, Sony, Siemens, Alstom, Toshiba, JCB and several other employers it’s clear that employers *do* value the courses. The problem is that employers don’t choose how to train students; schools do.

    Fair enough saying the engineering diploma could be on a different value scale, but it’s not: it’s being put on a value scale equivalent to a single GCSE, despite having four times the content of a normal GCSE.

  • What we need to get away from is this idea that kids are either academic or not. It is not binary. Kids have a mix of skills which should all be developed as far as possible. Kids should be able to do a mix of vocational and academic courses.

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Feb '12 - 9:53pm

    To reply to Lucy’s second point: ‘If what employers are wanting is good reasoning and language skills and they aren’t currently getting these from what is a strongly academic curriculum, perhaps this isn’t the best way for all young people to develop these skills…’

    I think this is putting it politely. The government has recently passed an act into law which strengthens the teaching of a small number of selected subjects, the English Baccalaureate. The non-Ebacc subjects such as Design Technology,much praised by engineers like James Dyson, now have to compete for a much smaller amount of already crowded curriculum time. Academic pupils are being ‘encouraged’ to follow the Ebacc subjects as recent league tables evidence. This is because not a day goes by without the Department for Education issuing a press release emphasising the importance of this small number of ‘core academic subjects.’ Where then does this leave the non-academic pupil? Once again, these children are being let down by an education ministry obsessed with a narrow university- academic curriculum. As this policy does not seem to fit with Liberal Democrat policy on providing a balanced scorecard for every child to realise their potential, one has to ask why the curriculum we advocate is a million miles away from what is being actually implemented.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th Feb '12 - 11:00am

    Reply to Joe: Too late. The media has spread the message (responding to the angle given to them by Gove and Gibb) about hundreds of ‘worthless’ qualifications. Decent qualifications such as those offered by JCB, got caught in the crossfire and will have to work hard to recover their position.
    Let’s not forget that the same happened with the introduction of the EBacc. A number of ‘equivalent’ subjects to subjects like Geography and History, have been downgraded because it suits Gove’s ideology. Personally, I believe every child should leave school with a balanced scorecard of qualifications which suit their aptitudes and potential.
    I’m an ordinary party member and I thought that’s what Liberal Democrat policy was? However, Gove and Gibb are not referring our policy, even remotely, as far as I can tell.

  • “A number of ‘equivalent’ subjects to subjects like Geography and History, have been downgraded because it suits Gove’s ideology. Personally, I believe every child should leave school with a balanced scorecard of qualifications which suit their aptitudes and potential.”

    At the end of the day, pupils should study subjects that they are interested in. However Universities and employers will continue to make value judgements about the quality of those qualifications along exactly the lines that Matthew Huntbach outlines. That has not been affected by what Gove has done here.

    Academic qualifications should be exactly that. The danger, exactly as when Polytechnics (which offered distinct courses and experiences to Universities) were renamed, is in trying to pretend that a GCSE in Media Studies is equivalent to English when it isn’t. Renaming someting doesn’t change what it is.

    The same thing happened when CSEs were merged with O-Levels. What was the point? Only Grades A-C count for anything, exactly the same as in the O-Level days.

    What we should be doing is putting our energy into devising a distinct and distinctive vocational baccaleuriat that equips school leavers with practical experience that can then be taken on into apprenticeship or further vocational training.

    All this would be far easier if we had schools geared to these different routes.

  • Richard Swales 8th Feb '12 - 7:35pm

    The competitive end of the league tables is unlikely to be affected much by this.

    I have had applicants say they have X number of BTEC qualifications and it is equivalent to 4 A-Levels. Maybe in some arbitrary scale, but not to me. Let’s stop FE colleges lying to kids and telling them that vocational qualifications are a route to university. They are meant to be a route to a trade.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '12 - 11:29pm

    Lucy Care

    This was (and is) very perceptive of pupils, who in some instances are being poorly advised by schools.

    Yes, they are being poorly advised to take supposedly “vocational” qualifications that actually aren’t very useful even for the careers which by their titles one might suppose they would be useful for. I teach a very practical subject at university, my speciality is computer programming. My experience was that those who came to us with supposedly “vocational” qualifications in “IT” were not helped at all, were in fact hindered, by what and how they had been taught in those qualifications and how they were assessed, when it came to mastery of this practical subject. The reality was that training in logic and clear thinking and basic use of language that is done through tne more traditional subjects was a better preparation.

    I am saying this not through prejudice but through actual experience. My university department could not afford, as the very high prestige ones can, to insist applicants had to have A-level Maths; to fill our places we did have to take a fair number coming through the “vocational” route. Some of those coming through this route did OK, but it was almost always only those who had AAA grade equivalent, whereas CCC in more traditional A-levels including Maths tended to be a much better marker of success. I believe enough in the power of education to say this was not just due to something innate buit actually due to what was being done by the teaching. That is, I believe there were many who had come to us through the “vocational” route who would have done much better had they gone through the traditional A-level route. What was heartbreaking was to see so many who could perfectly well have coped with the more useful qualifications not taking them because they had been advised not to – in general, the lower down the socio-economic scale the more likely this was to happen.

    When I was admissions tutor we were left fairly free to choose, so I chose those I knew from experience (I plotted final degree classifications against entrance grades each year to make sure) had the best chance of doing well. In general that meant asking for higher grades in “vocational” qualifications than the more abstract ones. As a result, I turned away hundreds of applicants every year who probably would have got an offer had they been better advised by their schools. As it happens, that can’t be done now – thanks to more “league table” pressure and nonsense like the special treatment for AAB grades, current admissions tutors tend not to be permitted to make a careful choice based on all aspects as I was a few years ago, now it has to be just points, never mind in what subjects.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Feb '12 - 11:44pm

    Lucy Care

    In this context Gove’s action in further marginalising vocational learning (which includes those applied sciences/technology) is furthering the trend away from the UK’s economic roots in technological innovation. Manufacturing companies (and Ed’s list is a good one!) are doing their best to fight back, but the playing field is being tilted away from them yet again

    But you just aren’t listening. This was a huge problem during the time I was involved in this sort of thing – I would keep trying to carefuly explain my case, as I have here, and I would be met with this sort of reply which paid no attention to what I was actually saying and insyead accused me of being snobbish or not wanting people to have good productive jobs. It was like banging my head against a brick wall.

    I know my particular experience is with “ICT” qualifications, where some have suggested (and there has been recent action on this) that there is a particular problem, but we also took a fair number with “vocational” qualifications in “business” and these tended to be even worse. I hear similar in other disciplines, where supposely “vocational” qualifications actually don’t seem to develop or measure the really necessary skills for the vocations they are supposedly “vocational” in.

    If other people have good experience with those who have gone through these qualifications, then please, let them speak, I’d love to hear it. There are huge numbers of them, and some of them may be very good, it’s just I’ve not come across any. However, it seems to me that if they really were any good at what they were meant to do, those who needed those skills would snap up those with them, regardless of some arbitrary points table.

    I’ve tried to explain on pedagogic and developmental grounds why qualifications that appear to be “vocational” are not as useful as they might appear from briefly looking at their labels. However, it’s getting late and why should I bother if the response is “lah lah lah, I’m not listening because you’re just a snob”?

  • I have to confess that I have no experience of University Admissions But I am a Chartered Engineer with 35 years experience in industry followed by 24 years as a County Councillor, a shool governor of 4 schools plus a PRU. My perspective is not constrained by academic value judgements however genuinel felt. Shools prepare our young people for life, hopefully a successful life. There is a wide spectrum of ability which can generate success and a narrow academic standard is not helpful in defining it: indeed it is a demotivatoional factor for many young people. Tomlinson knew this and that is what his excellent report sought to address. Gove simply doesn’t understand but that is hardly new is it? The workplace and society needs a range of abilities and a work ethic, pride in achievement and determination to succeed but hey what has that got to do with Gove?

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