Alison Wolf gave a highly fluent and at times entertaining account of her work 10 days or so ago. She also noted the narrowness of the brief, and pointed out the very short timescale for dealing with such a complex set of issues (6 months), and that the enquiry team consisted of little more than herself and a couple of civil servants - not exactly a vast team, although they were able to commission some specific research for the review.
She started by stating the key research findings she based her review on, which included:
- low average returns to NVQ
- high returns to apprenticeships, English and Maths, and employment.
- young people change jobs, occupations and sectors very frequently
- there are relatively few genuine NEETs - most young people move in and out of education and employment continuously
- practical and vocational courses are not inherently more motivating for low-achieving students: what motivates students is good courses and good teaching
- what courses are offered by schools and colleges is determined largely by funding pressures and by league tables, rather than by what is good for students.
- Early specialiation is undesirable: all 14-16s should follow a broad and largely common curriculum
- Increasingly important for employment and their future lives that all students should achieve A-C Maths and English
- Speeches about 'parity of esteem' make no difference to the respect in which different qualifications are held
- Good courses, ie those which teach difficult and valued skills to a high level, whether academic or vocational, lead to desirable future opportunities
- Local employers are the best source of quality control of vocational programmes
- Vocational programmes need to be taught by genuine experts
- Competition between institutions can be helpful provided the focus is on what is good for students
- Most students use information in a sophisticated manner
1. Conceptualising 14-19 education
- Qualifications on offer should be decided on at a local level
- Larger general education component in vocational education: say 80%-20%
- Bottom-up development of coherent programmes rather than random accumulation of qualifications
- Address shortfalls in provision, especially apprenticeships and genuine work placements
- Improve quality of vocational instruction, by increasing teacher mobility and institutional collaboration
- Improving information
- Rethink OFQUAL
- Rethink QA
- Rethink incentives built into accountability and league table measures
Most of these recommendations, accepting that they are not proposing fundamental change, seem to me to be broadly positive, and behind them is a strong call for the importance of 'really good teachers'. Maybe one of the Wolf Report's legacies will be a debate about what makes a 'really good teacher', how these can be supported and developed, and what institutional and system factors make it harder for 'really good teachers' to practice their craft. That would be a very positive outcome in my view.
Another key point she is making is against centralisation - identical standardised qualifications to be taken by everyone whatever their circumstances, the mass-production approach. She asserted that 'the current centralised regime is expensive and sclerotic'. Consistent with this, her assumption that local employers are the best source of quality assurance for vocational qualifications is controversial, but only in the context of the UK. In Germany, planning for vocational provision is jointly carried out by employers, unions and local government in what is known as the 'social partnership', a concept more or less alien to the British way of doing things. But at the same time, the German system has been held up for years as a model: if the Coalition really want to copy successful models from abroad, why not this one?