The importance of vocational education

My latest column in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald about why we need to address the ticking time bomb caused by the stigma surrounding STEM careers.
Michelle Donelan Column 18 Feb 16Prime Minister’s Questions is one of the most effective times when backbenchers and leaders of opposition parties can hold the Prime Minister to account. Policy almost never gets overhauled due to an exchange at PMQs but it is an effective tool in highlighting causes that are of national, constituency or personal importance to MPs. Last week I had my opportunity to raise an issue that I believe is important to all three – vocational education.

For too long science and engineering subjects and apprenticeships have been seen as second-class qualifications, but they are not. They are essential if the UK is to remain a global leader in product design. As I said to the PM, this is particularly apparent in Wiltshire where we have a rich engineering heritage and a diverse manufacturing based economy.

Vocational qualifications are highly rated by employers but are regularly overlooked by schools and, all too often, by parents too. Businesses tell me they cannot recruit adequately trained staff; it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that our education system delivers on that shortfall. It is time to give vocational training equal prominence with the English Baccalaureate, A-Levels and degrees.

A recent survey showed that the UK is currently failing to prepare students for work, achieving similar standards to those in the former Soviet Union or in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is too much emphasis on the theory and not enough on practical application, said the experts.

The problem facing vocational courses is, I believe, twofold. Firstly, there is a problem of perception. Vocational courses have an image problem. Too many schools, parents and pupils write them off before they are even considered as a viable option. The Government and, arguably more importantly, businesses have to address that immediately.

Secondly, the Government needs to do a lot more to inspire young people into vocational learning. Rightly, the Government is pushing ahead on ensuring that education is rigorous but the push towards the new EBacc threatens to undermine any progress being made in addressing the stigma associated with vocational training.

The Ebacc streamlines the curriculum, putting heavy emphasis on core academic subjects, but currently vocational subjects are excluded. The new D&T course is a vast improvement on the ‘woodwork’ classes of the past. Designed over years in partnership with businesses, it is a robust, science based, valuable option for GCSE. I believe that including D&T as part of the science option for the Ebacc (currently facing stiff opposition from the Department of Education) would strengthen the course, offer students a taster of vocational qualifications and, importantly, take a small step in addressing the growing skills gap.

As I said to the Prime Minister, this is a ticking time-bomb and we must get a grip of it if we are to remain at the forefront of global product design. What more can be done to plug the skills gap? Let me know on michelle.donelan.mp@parliament.uk