The debate about curriculum content has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Some have an unshakable belief in what might be called an “academic” curriculum for all, starting at 4 or 5 and continuing through to 16 at the earliest. They believe both vocational and vocationally-related learning should be delayed to 16 or beyond.
Others believe – and I am one of them – that these forms of learning can be successfully introduced before the age of 16, as part of a broad and balanced Key Stage 4 curriculum.
Neither side can point to conclusive evidence that they are right. There has been remarkably little research into the short, medium and long-term impacts on individuals of different courses of study in KS4.
This post is mainly about that problem. But let’s start with a quick look back.
In 1994, Sir Ron Dearing carried out a review of the National Curriculum. The government accepted his recommendation that that art, geography, history and music should be optional subjects in KS4 (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, The National Curriculum and its Assessment: Final Report). On the subject of vocational teaching and learning, Dearing said:
For some students, the introduction at Key Stage 4 of pathways with a more applied approach would increase the incentive to learn and provide a valuable teaching opportunity. In this, there are useful lessons from experience in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
This is not to suggest tightly-defined alternative pathways, since many students may find a mixture of academic and applied elements both motivating and crucial to future success.
Ten years later, design and technology and modern foreign languages also ceased to be compulsory KS4. This left maths, English and science as the only compulsory externally-examined subjects at KS4, though young people were required to take part in PE, RE and PSHE lessons and were entitled to study another language, a humanities subject (eg history), an arts subject, and design and technology.
These changes were announced by the then Secretary of State, Charles Clarke, in a green paper (DfES, 2003, 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence) which said:
Nearly half of young people still do not achieve five good GCSEs at school. More still do not reach that standard in English and mathematics. And one in twenty leaves without a single GCSE pass. These data reflect a deeper problem. Too many young people truant in their last two years of compulsory education. And the behaviour of some who turn up makes it hard for teachers to teach and others to learn. International league tables rank us 25th out of 29 among developed nations for participation of 17 year-olds in education and training.
[By developing a 14–19 phase,] we aim to provide greater coherence for schools, colleges and employers. And we hope students will more clearly see how their qualifications lead to further education or work. But to make this change a reality students must have more choice. That means more flexibility in their GCSE studies, with new applied options for traditionally academic subjects.
There was empirical evidence that some young people did benefit from studying a work-related subject alongside GCSEs. Ofsted wrote –
The students on adapted programmes of study are overwhelmingly positive about the changes to their curriculum. Adaptations are mainly, but not exclusively, aimed at those who might otherwise become disengaged from their learning. Well-considered changes to the curriculum have improved their motivation and attendance. Students are generally very positive about WRL [work-related learning]. There is also some evidence to suggest that attainment and staying on rates are improving. (Ofsted, The Key Stage 4 curriculum: Increased Flexibility, Work-related Learning and Young Apprenticeship Programmes, 2005)
This was not conclusive evidence, of course. Nevertheless, it lent support to the concept of increased flexibility in the KS4 curriculum.
Sadly, what happened next was a gross distortion of the original policy, leading inexorably to a loss of confidence and, ultimately, the Wolf Report.
In 2004, 113,202 Applied GCSEs were awarded; the most popular subjects were Applied ICT and Health and Social Care. In addition, about 117,000 GNVQs were awarded alongside GCSEs: 100,777 Intermediate GNVQs and 16,531 Foundation GNVQs (source: Joint Council for Qualifications).
The government intended that GNVQs should be phased out and replaced by new Diplomas. In practice, schools opted instead for a raft of new vocationally-related qualifications (VRQs) such as BTECs and OCR Nationals.
Unlike post-16 programmes such as Apprenticeships, courses leading to VRQs did not set out to provide young people with the skills to do a specific job. Rather, they were programme of study taught against the backdrop of a sector of the economy. Students developed research, project management, communication and maths skills in the particular context of their chosen field, be it engineering, child care or business and administration. Practical, hands-on projects helped illustrate the link between what was learned in the classroom and the way knowledge and skills are applied in the workplace. That was the theory, at any rate.
VRQs were popular with schools not just because they suited some young people, but because they were deemed equivalent to two or four GCSEs – sometimes more – and had high pass rates. As Tina Isaacs put it,
Schools were clearly seeking to improve their position in performance tables and reduce the possibility of being put into special measures by encouraging or even forcing their students into vocationally related courses, where they were more likely to get a C grade or above, which would then count for up to four grade Cs. (Good Secondary Education for All, in “The Tail”, 2013, edited by Paul Marshall. London: Profile Books)
By 2009/10, the number of VRQs awarded to KS4 students had risen to 462,182 (source: Alison Wolf, Review of Vocational Education, 2011). The incoming Secretary of State, Michael Gove, had no confidence in vocational provision either pre- or post-16. He asked Professor Alison Wolf to review 14-19 vocational education and recommend steps to eradicate poor practice.
Professor Wolf noted that almost all the teachers who gave evidence, and many others besides, said that vocational programmes increased students’ motivation, achievement and propensity to stay in education or training after the age of 16. However, she said that such views were not supported by the academic literature.
In reality, there was no substantial evidence either way. There had been no robust studies of the measurable impact of vocationally-related programmes in KS4, as none had been commissioned up to that point.
At her behest, the DfE commissioned the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) to explore the available evidence. They did a rapid initial analysis, summarised in the Wolf Report in these terms:
The cohort for which the most detailed information is available (LSYPE) was in year 11 in 2005/6. This was before the huge rise in VQ entries, so very few took anything other than GCSEs. Conversely, a good number report taking ‘vocational’ qualifications, meaning, for the most part, GCSEs with vocational titles (eg business studies) or vocational GCSEs. An analysis by CAYT for the Review looked at whether taking such qualifications made a difference to the later trajectories of disengaged students (identified by poor attitudes to school, aspiring to leave education, playing truant). They found no statistically significant effects.
Following the publication of the Wolf Report, CAYT went on to do a more detailed analysis, published in October 2011 (The impact of KS4 vocational courses on disengaged young people’s engagement with education 15-18).
Overall, their conclusion was much the same as before:
We found no evidence to suggest that taking vocational courses in Year 10 helps to re-engage young people who are already disengaged from education. Neither did we find any evidence to suggest studying vocational courses makes matters worse.
Almost all of the young people included in the CAYT research took Applied GCSEs and GNVQs, not VRQs. Without further research, therefore, we cannot assume that their conclusions – that vocationally-related courses have no measurable impact on the performance or progression of disengaged young people – would hold true for disengaged students who study for post-2004 VRQs.
Nor does academic research tell us much about the impact of VRQs on students who are not (in CAYT’s terms) disengaged. That said, there is some evidence that achieving a BTEC increases the likelihood of continuing in education or training. This issue was examined by Pamela Lenton and Steve McIntosh (Achievement, Progression and Labour Market Impact of BTEC Qualifications: An Analysis Using the 11th Youth Cohort Study, 2008). They investigated ‘young people studying for a BTEC qualification one year, the outcomes of that study the next year, and the impact that such study has had on their labour market outcomes the year after that’. They concluded:
Amongst those young people who … acquire a BTEC qualification, there is strong evidence that this acquisition persuades them to continue to higher levels of education, even when controlling for background characteristics and original education choices at age 17. Individuals who acquire a BTEC qualification at a lower level are shown to be more likely still to be in full-time education at age 19, relative to individuals whose highest qualification is below Level 2.
The study examined data only for students aged 16+. It would be interesting to know whether students taking BTECs (or equivalent VRQs) in KS4 also show an increased propensity to continue their studies at a higher level.
More recently, the University of the West of England examined the impact ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) on KS4 students’ achievements (The Impact of the Pursuit of ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) on GCSE Attainment, 2012). The likelihood of achieving grades A* to C in GCSE English was found to be 10% higher in schools which make extensive use of CoPE than in similar schools which do not use CoPE. The effect is particularly strong among students with relative weak levels of attainment in Key Stage 3.
Again, this is not conclusive proof that VRQs improve attainment, motivation or progression – this time, because CoPE has a broader context than most VRQs: it focuses on developing students’ personal attributes, planning and communication skills and resilience.
Which brings us back to a crucial point: there is a huge lack of evidence as to the impact and effectiveness of KS4 vocational provision, because it has not been properly researched.
However, the absence of evidence does not prove that vocationally-related learning is invariably inappropriate for 14-16 year olds.
A corollary also applies. There is a lack of evidence that the prospects of KS4 students are invariably harmed if they drop academic subjects such as history and modern foreign languages.
This whole area would lend itself to further research. For example, it should be possible to compare indicators such as attendance rates, achievements and post-16 subject choices made by KS4 students in each performance quintile (measured by reference to prior attainment) who –
- take a VRQ but not (say) GCSE history in KS4
- take (say) GCSE history but not a VRQ in KS4.
Research of this kind would shed light on the short-term consequences of choosing to study for a VRQ in KS4. It would have to be done at scale, and take account of a wide range of variables including school and pupil characteristics.
Looking to the longer term, it would be interesting to find out whether young people who study (say) history or a VRQ in KS4 experience any long-term educational and/or economic advantages or disadvantages, compared with those who do not. Again, this would have to take account of prior attainment and other characteristics, in order to assess differences within performance quintiles.
Until we have strong evidence, we will continue to debate the content of the KS4 curriculum, based on our experience, our beliefs and our interpretation of empirical evidence. For example, I will continue to bring forward evidence from countries where pre-16 students routinely undertake vocational and/or vocationally-related learning as part of a balanced curriculum: countries like Switzerland and Austria, for example. But that’s for another day.