Wednesday, 13 April 2011

More on the Wolf Report

I was recently at two seminars on the Wolf Report on 14-19 Vocational Education (see earlier post), one led by Ann Hodgson at the IoE, given as part of the 'Teach In' organised by the Students' Union on the day of the UCU strike, and the other led by Alison Wolf herself, also at the IoE.

Ann's in-depth analysis of what is a very long and detailed report concluded that it doesn't address any of the fundamental problems of our education and training system, but does propose some tweaks aimed at making the present mess work a little better.  She pointed out that the very narrow brief of the enquiry effectively precluded proposals for systemic change, as the whole system is so closely interconnected: changes in one part would require changes in other parts too - not part of the brief.  Her view is that most of her recommendations would actually help

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.
She stated that her basic assumptions (open to disagreement) were these:
  • 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
These preliminaries lead to the three main focusses of her recommendations:

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
2.   Funding and institutional arrangements
  • Address shortfalls in provision, especially apprenticeships and genuine work placements
  • Improve quality of vocational instruction, by increasing teacher mobility and institutional collaboration
  • Improving information
3.   Regulatory framework
  • Rethink OFQUAL
  • Rethink QA
  • Rethink incentives built into accountability and league table measures
So far, apart from the acceptance of 4 of her recommendations at the launch of the report, there has been no response from the Coalition Govt to it.  Alison Wolf said she would be surprised if all of them were accepted and implemented, because it is such a complicated undertaking to make changes of more than a superficial nature to the education system - it is interlayered and interconnectd and so changes in one place require changes in others.  This can be done, but not within the lifetime of one government, and so these types of change will only happen with either very confident, or very radical governments.  I guess she was referring to her recommendations about the accountability system.  She was highly critical of the way the achievement of qualifications is used to accredit students and at the same time for funding purposes and for league table places: this leads to unintended outcomes, because institutions' success depends on these measures rather than on what is good for learners.  I was pleased to hear her say this so unequivocally, as I argued that funding and accountability should be detached from qualifications gained within Skills for Life a long time ago, in 'Testing, Testing, 1,2,3'  published by NIACE in 2004.  However, I guess she is right that we shouldn't hold our breath that this will be implemented during the present government's term of office, even if some of the less fundamental recommendations are. 

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?

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