By Claire West

The independent Wolf Review into vocational education, commissioned by Education Secretary Michael Gove, is published today, revealing that 300,000-400,000 16 to 19 year olds are doing courses of little value, and recommending that local employers should be more involved in assessing the value of vocational qualifications and providing apprencticeship opportunities.

Professor Alison Wolf analysed how millions of children have been failed over the past twenty years and set out a blueprint for a very different system in which almost all young people have the chance of further education or a good job.

Among her key findings were that many students of GCSE age have been pushed into subject choices by league table systems that did not accurately reflect the value of the qualifications to future employers. Indeed, a quarter to a third of 16 to 19 year olds are on courses which do not lead to higher education or good jobs.

Wolf also found that while there are many high quality courses available, they are the exception to the norm, and are not encouraged by the current regulatory and funding systems. Meanwhile, the Diploma which had been introducced to solve long term vocational training concerns has seen less than 1% take up, while the best apprenticeships are increasingly being offered to older people over teenagers. All this is contributing to what a Departmental press release called 'a growing crisis in the youth labour market'.

Professor Wolf recommended a radical change of direction, including a reshaping of the system to stop it pushing students into 'dead-end' courses. The system must be more honest in identifying good and poor choices to young people, and be simplified to remove the perverse incentives encouraging uptake of unsuitable courses. Wolf also pointed out the opportunity to learn from best practice in countries doing things better than the UK, such as Denmark, France and Germany.

A Role For Employers

Wolf's proposals also touched on the role of employers and businesses. She proposed that employers should be directly involved in quality assurance and assessment activities at local level, as it is the most important guarantor of high quality vocational provision. She also suggested subsidising employers if they offer 16 to 18 year old apprentices high-quality, off-the-job training, and an education with broad transferable elements.

Mr Gove said Prof Wolf’s report was "brilliant and ground-breaking”. He immediately accepted four recommendations, but the proposals relating to increasing and incentivising employers' invovlement in vocational education are still awaiting consideration.

Gove said: "The system that we have inherited is very damaging. It is unfair for children and it is harming the economy. Millions of children have been misled into pursuing courses which offer little hope.

"We will reform league tables, the funding system, and regulation to give children honest information and access to the right courses.

"Implementing these reforms will be hard and take a few years but we cannot afford another decade of educational failure."

Andy Wilson, Principal of Westminster Kingsway College, where the publication of the report was announced, said: "Westminster Kingsway College welcomes the publication of Alison Wolf’s eagerly awaited report. We are pleased that in taking an early decision to review vocational education, the coalition Government has recognised its importance to both short term economic recovery and the future of the countries young people. The careful and considered analysis Professor Wolf has provided further enhances the importance of the vocational curriculum and recognises the position of further education colleges at the heart of its delivery."

Businesses as well as academic institutions have welcomed the review. Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimplico Plumbers, who gave evidence to the Commission, has backed Professor Alison Wolf’s view that young people could be helped back into work if the social status of trade apprenticeships is improved. He has also praised the report for adopting his view that employers need more help to take on and train apprentices.

Mullins, a former apprentice who runs a successful apprenticeship programme in his business, said: “What's really got me excited about the Wolf Report are the two major points I made in my submission to the Commission. The professor agrees that real vocational jobs plumbing, carpentry, electrics and many more have been downgraded in social status over the years. This is a situation that needs to be addressed if we are going to get a million young people back into work.

“The other point which has come out loud and clear is pretty much my clarion call - employers need to be helped, subsidised if you like, to take on more high quality apprentices."

Andy Palmer, head of skills at BT, said: "We require strong literacy and numeracy but all too often it is these key skills - particularly the ability to deploy them in the workplace - that cause our young recruits so many problems and requires investment from us.

We continually hear about the need for parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications but this masks the fact that they are different products with different outputs. Our senior management roles are populated by former apprentices and graduates alike."

Professor Wolf's report can be downloaded from the Department of Education website.