Vocational Education

Michael Gove outlines the Government’s response to the recommendations made by Professor Alison Wolf in her report ‘Review of Vocational Education’.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to a make a statement on the next stage of this coalition Government’s radical reform programme to make opportunity more equal. I should like to outline our response to Professor Alison Wolf’s groundbreaking report on vocational education. In her work, Professor Wolf stresses the importance of fundamental reform across the board to improve state education, and I would first like to update the House on our progress towards that goal.

It is a year to the day since the new Department for Education was created to raise standards for all children and narrow the gap between rich and poor. In that year: we have introduced a pupil premium—£2.5 billion of additional spending on the poorest pupils; we have extended the free provision of nursery education for all three and four-year-olds and introduced free nursery education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds; we have launched the most comprehensive review ever of care for children with special needs; we have overhauled child protection rules to ensure that social workers are better able to help the most vulnerable children; we have allowed all schools to use the high-quality exams which the last Government restricted to the private sector; we are ensuring that spelling, punctuation and grammar are properly recognised in exams; we have recruited Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson to restore proper narrative history teaching; and we are doubling the number of great graduates becoming teachers through Teach First and doubling the number of great heads becoming national leaders of education.

We have also created more than 400 new academies, tripling the number we inherited and creating more academies in 12 months than the last Government did in 12 years. I can confirm to the House today that we have now received more than 1,000 applications from schools wishing to become academies and more than 300 applications to set up free schools, many from great teachers such as the inspirational head teacher, Patricia Sowter. and the former Downing street aide, Peter Hyman.

Those achievements have been made possible by the united strength of two parties with a shared commitment to social mobility working together, and I wish to take this opportunity to underline my thanks, for the part they have played in pushing this programme forward—to the Deputy Prime Minister, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), to the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who has responsibility for children and families, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws). It is my personal hope that we will all be able once more to make use of his talents in the country’s service before too long.

We will be building on the momentum generated by our reform programme by today accepting all the recommendations in Professor Wolf’s report on vocational education. She found that although there are many great vocational education courses and institutions providing excellent vocational education that are heavily oversubscribed, hundreds of thousands of young people

are taking qualifications that have little or no value. That is because: the system is overly complex; after years of micro-management and mounting bureaucratic costs, it is also hugely expensive; and there are counter-productive and perverse incentives that steer students into inferior courses. In short, the damaging system of vocational education that we inherited is failing young people and must be changed now before the prospects of generations of young people are further blighted.

Securing our country’s future relies upon us developing our own world-class education system, from which young people graduate with not only impeccable qualifications and deep subject knowledge, but the real practical and technical skills they need to succeed. This Government support high-quality vocational education not just for its utility; vocational education is valuable in its own right. It is part of the broad and balanced curriculum that every pupil should be able to enjoy. It allows young people to develop their own special craft skills, to experience the satisfaction of technical accomplishment, and to expand what they know, understand and can do. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has repeatedly and eloquently argued, we need to elevate the practical and treat vocational education not, as it has been seen in the past, as an inferior route for the less able, but as an aspirational path for those with specific aptitudes. That is why we are taking immediate steps to rebuild the currency of vocational qualifications.

As recommended by Professor Wolf, we have reinstated several qualifications which lead to professional success, for example, certificates in electrical engineering and plumbing, which we know are highly valued by schools and colleges, and are admired by employers. Because we know that the current set of qualifications does not meet all needs, we will work with awarding bodies and others to ensure that more high-quality courses are available for students of all levels.

Because we know that the current league table system does not reward the progress made by students of all abilities, we will reform league tables to recognise the achievements of the lowest and highest-achieving. And because we know that not all qualifications are equal, we will further reform the league tables to guarantee that vocational qualifications are given a proper weighting. Their value will no longer be inflated in a way that encourages students to pursue inappropriate courses, or overlooked in a way that unbalances achievement.

Because we know the current funding system creates perverse incentives, we will reform it. At the moment, schools and colleges are incentivised to offer lower-grade qualifications that are easier to pass because they get paid on those results. That must end. The dumbing-down of the past has got to stop if the next generation are to succeed. Students should choose the qualifications they need to succeed, not those that bureaucracies deem appropriate.

However, while choice in the qualifications market is crucial, there are certain inescapable facts in the labour market that no student can ignore. Employers rightly insist that students be properly literate and numerate. They remind us that there are no more important vocational subjects than English and maths. As Professor Wolf’s report lays bare, huge numbers of students leave education without proper qualifications in those areas, making it increasingly hard for them to secure jobs.

This Government will put an end to that by ensuring that all 16 to 18-year-olds who were unable to secure at least a C in English and maths at GCSE will continue to study those subjects through to age 19.

The best performing education systems not only offer a strong grounding in the basics such as English and maths, but ensure a good general education that cements the ability to reason, to assess evidence, to absorb knowledge and to adapt to new opportunities. In this fast-changing world, few 16-year-olds know exactly what they will be doing at the age of 21, let alone when they are 25, 35 or 45, so we need to ensure that every 18-year-old has followed a broad programme of study and has a core academic knowledge that provides a secure foundation from which to progress. That is why Professor Wolf backs our English baccalaureate as a springboard to future success in a rapidly changing world and stresses that it gives students the maximum freedom to choose between academic and vocational pathways throughout their life.

We know that the most prestigious vocational pathways require a rounded school education as preparation. Professor Wolf’s report underlines that some of the best vocational education in the world exists in our private sector apprenticeship programmes. The best are massively oversubscribed. BT typically has 15,000 applicants for 100 places each year. Rolls-Royce has 10 applicants for every place and Network Rail is similarly oversubscribed. There is far greater competition for some of these courses than there is for places at Oxford or Cambridge.

We want to ensure that all employers get the support they need to offer high quality apprenticeships. The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is working to reduce the bureaucracy that employers face and to ensure that every penny spent by Government and employers on apprenticeships can be used to the very best effect, including by studying best practice with similar schemes around the world.

Professor Wolf emphasised the need for clear routes for progression, but also for greater flexibility within them. She was right to do so. We will consider what further programmes of study are needed, alongside the general educational component, to give 16 to 18-year-olds the broad education they need.

For more than a century, there have been numerous, failed attempts to reform vocational education. It is now more important than ever that we finally bring an end to the two-tier education system that has scarred our country for too long. Professor Wolf’s report, together with wider reforms like the fantastic university technical colleges being pioneered by Lord Baker, sets out a clear map of what we need to do. I am delighted that Professor Wolf has agreed to continue to provide regular and ongoing advice to Government as we implement her recommendations. I cannot think of anyone better qualified to help us offer young people the genuine and high-quality technical education they have been too long denied. I commend this statement to the House.

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Michael Gove: I thank the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) for his response, and welcome him back to the Dispatch Box, on day release from his other job as Labour’s election co-ordinator. May I say how much we on the Government Benches are enjoying the progress he is making in that job? From Dartford and Dover to Aberconwy and Pembrokeshire, from North Lincolnshire to Southampton, Conservative councillors who won last Thursday are delighted with the progress he is making, and so are we. The longer he stays in that role, the happier all of us will be.

May I also welcome the fact that, when the right hon. Gentleman returned to his part-time role as shadow Education Secretary, he found time to endorse many of our recommendations? I welcome the support he has given to our aims of improving numeracy and literacy and ensuring that students over the age of 16 who have not secured GCSE passes in English and maths have an opportunity to acquire appropriate qualifications in those subjects.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a good question about multiple measures and the importance of ensuring that we do not create an accountability system that is too complex, but as he himself acknowledged and as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Chairman of the Select Committee, there must be a golden mean between having so many targets that teachers are pulled in different directions, and having only one target that distorts the performance of all schools. I believe that the balanced basket of accountability targets that we are introducing reflects what teachers believe—namely, that all students of all abilities need to have their achievements recognised, that the autonomy should be over how schools teach and how the school day is organised, and that in return for greater autonomy there should be sharper accountability.

Talking of sharper accountability, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the English baccalaureate. He seemed to suggest—or, at least, seemed to want to lead the House to believe—that Professor Wolf was unhappy with it. On Saturday 12 March Professor Wolf wrote in The Guardian:

“Andy Burnham… is quoted as saying”

that she had said there was

“a ‘serious risk’ that the English bac will lead to schools ‘simply ignoring’ less academically able students. This misrepresents what I said.”

She also wrote:

“For the record, may I also note that the English bac subjects would normally absorb less than 80% of a teaching week. Both it and many other ‘academic’ clusters are therefore perfectly compatible with my recommendations for curriculum balance for 14 to 16-year-olds.”

Professor Wolf deserves better than to be traduced in that way by the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to careers advice. Let me politely point out to him that the person appointed to lead on social mobility for the previous Government, Alan Milburn, said that we should move away from the failed connection system and adopt a new approach, giving

“Schools and colleges… direct responsibility for providing information, advice and guidance”.

Moreover, Professor Alison Wolf pointed out in evidence to the Select Committee that the “problem with careers guidance” had been the model that the right hon. Gentleman prefers: a model that was stuck in the past, with “one poor teacher” being expected to know about everything. That, she said, had been supplanted by a more modern measure enabling skilled careers advisers and “proper, online, updated information” to provide students with the right answers.

I am afraid that, not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman has been found out in his old Labour ways. He has been in office for 200 days. During that time he said that our academies programme would be divisive, but more than 1,000 great teachers have embraced it. He said that free schools would generate poverty and dislocation, but the best and brightest in Labour are now embracing their radical appeal. Today he has said that the coalition Government have got it wrong on vocational education. Given his record, I am delighted to find the right hon. Gentleman sitting opposite me today.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. I am particularly pleased about the apprenticeships. The fact that young people in my constituency are now able to apply directly to Rolls-Royce and Toyota for apprenticeships is a major step forward.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Having had an opportunity to visit Rolls-Royce just over a month ago, I can confirm that the apprenticeships it offers are highly sought after, and that students from all over Derbyshire and the east and west midlands recognise that it is precisely that kind of high-quality private sector apprenticeship that we should facilitate.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Like many others, I gave evidence to the Wolf inquiry. I approve of much of the report and consider it to be a breath of fresh air, but I remind the Secretary of State that he made his statement on a day on which we heard that a million young people are unemployed. We know that only 6% of kids aged between 16 and 18 obtain apprenticeships, and only 36% go on to higher education. Given the tremendous challenge posed by the participation rate moving to 17 and then 18, may we have Wolf mark 2, 3 and 4?

Michael Gove: As ever, the hon. Gentleman shows why he was seen as such a distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee. He is right to point out that the record of the last 13 years is not nearly as bright or as promising as Opposition Front Benchers would have us believe, and to suggest that we need more work from Professor Wolf and others to ensure that our vocational and academic education systems keep in touch with the 21st century. That is why I am so delighted that Professor Wolf will remain an adviser to the Government to ensure the implementation of the report and, indeed, the succeeding measures that we hope to take.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Professor Wolf might not have thought that the English baccalaureate on its own could distort and harm outcomes for the poorest in our schools, but I have to say that the Chairman of the Select Committee feels that it could. However, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said today about building a balanced score card. Can we work to create a consensus across the House that what we need is an assessment and accountability framework that gives equal weight to the progress of every child? We do not want too complicated a set of targets, but we need a system that works, allowing schools to get on with it and deliver for everyone.

Michael Gove: That is a very good point. It is rather a shame that the view of some Labour Members—which is not shared by my hon. Friend—is that working-class children cannot achieve academic excellence. [Interruption.] I am afraid that that is the view of Opposition Front Benchers. Labour Members therefore feel that this is somehow an unfair and elitist measure, but I think that it is an aspirational measure. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to ensure that all the abilities of all children are recognised, whatever their background. Labour Members need to return to the aspirational educational model that we saw under Lord Adonis, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield, which was sadly abandoned three years ago.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I welcome Professor Wolf’s report, which has also been welcomed by the Association of Colleges. I note two points in particular: the suggestion that maths and English education should be continued for youngsters over the age of 16 who are on vocational courses and who did not achieve grade C at GCSE, and the suggestion that vocational studies in schools should be limited to 20% of the curriculum, with 80% devoted to traditional subjects. Will the Secretary of State make those statutory requirements, or will they have only advisory status?

Michael Gove: On the continuation of the study of maths and English after the age of 16, we will, in the context of raising the participation age, explore legislative and other options to ensure that all children have the opportunity to follow those paths,. On the related question of the 80:20 split, Professor Wolf says that to ensure the maximum chance of progressing along academic and vocational pathways, there should be an academic core up to the age of 16. She also argues that it is a good thing for all students to experience some practical learning. That is not prescriptive; it is a guide, and one of the points she makes is that university technical colleges, which have a longer school day and school week, can have a full academic core as well as a significant additional layer of practical learning on top.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): Before coming to the Chamber today, I addressed a business breakfast on the edge of my right hon. Friend’s constituency and mine. Is he as concerned as I am about the finding in the CBI survey published this week that 40% of firms are not satisfied with the basic literacy of school and college leavers and that more than a third are not satisfied with basic levels of numeracy? Does he believe that the measures he has announced today will help to reverse that sad state of affairs?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He speaks very effectively for the businessmen of Surrey, who are doing so much to provide opportunities for young people, and I have to say that he is absolutely right: one of the major complaints from employers is that there are bright, intelligent, get-up-and-go young people who, sadly, have left the school system without the numeracy and literacy required to fit into almost any modern role. There is no more important task for this Government than to get those basics right, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) for acknowledging that in the first part of his response.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): May I test the Secretary of State’s commitment to poorer students? Will he give a guarantee today that poor students in St Helens will get more money and support than under the old system?

Michael Gove: Yes.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a sign of the last Government’s failure to improve education that more than 250,000 children left school last year without a C grade in GCSE maths and English?

Mr Speaker: Order. The short answer is no, and let me repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have already had reason to say to him several times: questions must be about the policy of the current Government. I have made that point to him before, and he has breached the requirement several times. He will not do so again.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I want to follow on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts). Riverside college is a really good college in my constituency, but it has faced major funding cuts from the Secretary of State’s Government. Given that he has just guaranteed increased funding for students in St Helens, will he also give the same guarantee to students in my constituency of Halton?

Michael Gove: As soon as word gets out that we are engaging in one-to-one negotiations across the green Benches, I expect that the Chamber will rapidly fill up, even though there is a one-line Whip. I would repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) to all Members: thanks to the coalition Government’s commitment to the pupil premium and to our reforms of 16-19 learning, the most disadvantaged students will receive more money. That is all thanks to our commitment to social justice.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and place on record my thanks to Professor Wolf for her excellent report? Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the delivery of these very important reforms? In particular, has he looked closely at the US community college system, which has been extremely successful in delivering these kinds of reforms to very hard-to-reach young people?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend has campaigned for a better deal for poorer students ever since he first came to this House, and I agree that we must look at international models of good practice. The university technical colleges that this Government are committed to introducing provide a new model that caters for students of different aptitudes, and I believe we can learn a lot from some of the best practice in the United States.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State said in his statement that the purpose of his radical reform programme was to make “opportunity more equal”. Does he accept, however, that it is difficult to realise that aim while local authorities are not being treated equally? For example, in my local authority of Luton there are 3.1 pupils per family, compared with the English average of 1.9. Does the Secretary of State agree that, for Professor Wolf’s review recommendations to be successful, he must fund the measures properly?

Michael Gove: I am not sure what levers I have at my disposal to ensure that other parts of the country can enjoy the same family size as Luton is blessed with. On the broader point of making sure there is funding for Luton, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Luton is blessed with many excellent schools, such as Denbigh high school, which Dame Yasmin Bevan leads, and the Barnfield group of academies and studio schools. I look forward to visiting Luton shortly, when I will have an opportunity to talk to head teachers there. I hope I might also have an opportunity to talk to the hon. Gentleman about what more we can do to help continue the success stories in his constituency.

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): De Vere catering academy in my constituency offers dozens of aspiring young people the opportunity of a high-quality, employer-led apprenticeship. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about what is being done to ease the path for other employers to follow its lead?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is cross-party commitment to apprenticeships. Unfortunately, however, while they are well intentioned and justifiable in themselves, some of the bureaucracy surrounding the way in which the Skills Funding Agency has supported apprenticeships, some of the requirements that have been placed on apprenticeship frameworks, and some recording responsibilities of employers in respect of the individual learning record, have together added up to a significant burden that means that many small and medium-sized enterprises in particular find it expensive or burdensome to take on an apprentice. My hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills are taking forward a programme to reduce that bureaucracy, and I hope it will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): As the Secretary of State is well aware, modern business needs people who can make, do, create and invent things, as well as people who can analyse things, and even if Professor Wolf is right that her recommendations are compatible with the English bac if 20% of the curriculum is made available for those kinds of skills to be developed, the Secretary of State knows—as we all do—that, in practice, this is not happening in some schools. Will he therefore consider the following request, which I have made before: that he add to the English bac at least one qualification that is about making, creating or doing, such as in electrical engineering or making music?

Michael Gove: I take on board the hon. Lady’s point. I think the intention behind her request is admirable, and it is reflected in what Professor Wolf says. However, it would be wrong for me to prescribe what additional qualification or course might be appropriate to encourage people to acquire those practical skills. One of the points Professor Wolf makes is that there are many courses of study, or pursuits at school or beyond, that might not necessarily lead specifically to a qualification but can provide people with the skills required. It is crucial that we support qualifications that are robust and, where possible, invest in developing them to reflect what employers need, but we must also ensure flexibility and autonomy so that schools can do the right thing for their students.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I particularly warmly welcome the announcement that 16 to 18-year-olds who do not achieve a C grade in English or maths will continue to study those subjects. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), how quickly will the Government be able to take action, so that we can end the practice under the previous Government of hundreds of thousands of children leaving school without the requisite qualifications?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend reminds us of the dreadful fact that only about 50% of students manage to leave state schools with five good GCSEs including English and maths. That means that hundreds of thousands of young people simply do not have the opportunity to move on to the jobs they deserve.

I see that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) is present. One of the great things he did when he was an FE college principal was develop courses that ensured that students could very quickly resit GCSE English and maths, or follow courses that would lead them, in due course, to acquiring a broadly comparable level of literacy and numeracy. I want to work with great FE principals, as he once was, to ensure we get the right courses for the right students.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): I wholeheartedly support the move to abolish equivalence for low-quality qualifications, which has effectively been a mis-selling scandal to young people for more than 10 years now. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that low quality GCSEs and A-levels are also not counted in our league tables?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend has been a fantastic campaigner for rigour in state education, and she is right that, as Professor Wolf points out, many qualifications were mis-sold to students on the basis that they would lead to progression. The right hon. Member for Leigh talked about students being coerced into courses that were not appropriate for them. We know that employers and universities welcome the courses in the English baccalaureate, but some of the courses that had an inflated value in league tables in the past, under the Government of whom he was a part, were not valued by employers or by higher or further education institutions.

My hon. Friend also made a point about GCSEs and A-levels. We are working with Ofqual to make sure that every GCSE awarding body is appropriately rigorous, and we will work with universities to ensure that A-levels are even stronger.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that focusing narrowly on one measure of school performance, particularly five A* to C grades for GCSE—I personally insist on those including maths and English—creates perverse incentives for schools and encourages them to focus on borderline C and D grade students to the detriment of other students?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Ultimately there will never be a single perfect accountability measure. The one he mentioned on floor standards has helped us to raise attainment in schools, but one measure does not fit all. I therefore welcome his support for developing a more sophisticated way of analysing attainment, so that students with lower ability but real commitment can be recognised, and in particular so that schools that take students with low levels of previous attainment and transform their outlooks can be properly recognised and applauded.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I welcome Professor Wolf’s report and the Government’s response. I was on the Education Select Committee that discussed the baccalaureate and was left in no doubt that Professor Wolf thought it was consistent with her interest in ensuring a proper academic basis to the measurement of pupils’ performance. Does the Secretary of State agree that the baccalaureate will enable pupils to make sensible, informed choices and give them the confidence to implement those decisions when opportunities arise?

Michael Gove: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Hon. Members on both sides of the House listened attentively to his question. We should pay particularly close attention to him, given the role he has played in further education. We know—every nation knows—that if students can reach a solid academic level by the age of 16, they will be in a strong position to choose which academic and vocational pathways they can move between later. Having a solid academic core creates no tension. In fact, it is an absolute precondition to success in vocational education.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Over the past year, I have visited numerous manufacturing and engineering firms across Pendle that are keen to expand and recruit more, where managers have told me that they are not satisfied with the levels of literacy and numeracy among job applicants. Does my right hon. Friend believe that today’s proposals, along with some of the other measures outlined by the Government—for instance, for university technical colleges—will help to address this problem?

Michael Gove: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I know that east Lancashire has no better champion, and in particular that he speaks up effectively for young people and businesses in his constituency. We can help by ensuring that there are the opportunities for those young people who in the past might not have had an education fit for their talents to succeed in English, maths and the world of work.

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