Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Nothing Changes: Perceptions of Vocational Education in England

Academic journal article International Journal of Training Research

Nothing Changes: Perceptions of Vocational Education in England

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper explores the implications of the findings of a funded, qualitative study carried out in summer 2010 which explored young people's perceptions of vocational education in England (see Atkins, Flint, & Oldfield, 2011). The study raised a number of key issues in respect of the vocational education available to young people in England. These issues are explored in the context of contemporary coalition policy in respect of vocational education, and the likely impact of that policy on the lives and experiences of young people such as those who participated in this study.

In 2010, after 13 years of centre-left New Labour administration, the right-wing Conservative party won the general election, but failed to achieve the overall majority necessary to govern and entered into a coalition agreement with the smaller, centrist Liberal-Democrat party, becoming known simply as the 'Coalition'. In responding to imperatives such as the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, but also seeking to reverse policies seen to be inconsistent with centre-right ideology and acknowledging the continuing failure to address issues of parity of esteem, the coalition commissioned the Wolf Review of Vocational Education, published in 2011. The recommendations were accepted in full (Department for Education [DfE], 2011) and subsequent policy has been broadly based on this report. As part of the attempt to achieve greater parity of esteem between vocational and academic credentials, and to achieve greater global competitiveness, new 'elite' centres for vocational education, known as University Technical Colleges, were announced. These are aligned to universities or multi-national businesses, and take small numbers of academically able students from age 14-19 years. However, little has been done to address the needs of the lower attaining young people who are not considered equipped for this type of education, and most enter programmes in further education (FE) colleges - which draw their students primarily from lower socio-economic groups and are largely unchanged from those on offer under New Labour. Thus, despite the Coalition's clearly articulated commitment to raise the status of vocational education and training (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [DfBIS], 2012, p. 6), their promises retain hollow echoes of the failures of their predecessors (e.g. see Department for Education and Skills [DfES], 2005, p. 17). The policy acknowledgement that the value placed on vocational education is generally low, and the strong association between VET and lower attaining young people, reflects rhetoric which is widely used in England and Wales, as well as notions of deficit, which have become insidiously embodied in discourse about vocational education internationally. For example, Wallace (2001) provides an early UK critique, whilst Dalley-Trim, Alloway, and Walker (2008), and Polesel and Clarke (2011) offer an Australian perspective. It was in this dynamic context that this research was undertaken, and in which the discussion of the outcomes of the study are located.

Literature review

The body of work on school-to-work transitions in the English context identifies three key themes or issues which also appear in the wider literature on vocational education. These include social class, gender and parity of esteem, and a majority of the studies draw on a Bourdieusian analysis of these issues (e.g. Bourdieu, 1990; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), drawing particularly on concepts such as structure and agency, and field and habitus in order to explain the existence and impact of the structural inequalities in the broad field of education. Social class is a significant issue in the UK context, since class hierarchies and cultures are deeply embedded throughout society and influence many aspects of life. It is a particular issue in the vocational context because educational outcome is closely associated with social class, and also because the vocational curriculum is class-specific and accessed largely by young people from lower socio-economic groups (Colley et al. …

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