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Vocational qualifications: do they make the grade?

Blog posted by: Andrew Gladstone-Heighton, Policy Leader, Wednesday 16 August 2017.

With August sharp becoming one of the wettest months of the year, the Department for Education (DfE) released their own deluge of information and documents, in time for us in the sector to wade through and pick out anything of value.

One of the many things released was the long overdue DfE/Frontier report: Economics Assessing the Vocational Qualifications Market in England.

So what did Frontier Economics find? “A complex system with a great many stakeholders involved.” Neither surprising nor newsworthy. Digging a little further; when viewing the forthcoming Post-16 Skills Plan, they state that: both short and long term risks associated with limiting access to the market need to be considered”– certainly a cautionary red flag for plans to restrict delivery of qualifications to one Awarding Organisation (AO).

They undertook analysis to determine what might be driving differential performance in some sectors and the extent to which this indicated weaknesses in individual markets or across the vocational qualifications market as a whole.

Amongst their findings were that;

  • There are high barriers to training providers switching between AOs in other parts of the market, potentially leading to lower rigour, responsiveness and innovation from AOs – “Our stakeholder interviews suggested that high barriers to switching restrict effective choice by training providers between AOs even in sub-markets where multiple AOs exist.”
  • However, this is then caveated by their findings that insufficient head-to-head competition potentially leads to lower responsiveness and innovation – “Despite the proliferation of AOs in most segments of the market, competition between AOs at the level of individual qualifications is limited.”

Indeed, Frontier Economics go further, stating that: Our work has found that competition can be an effective tool in driving improvements in customer support (our stakeholders reported that this is a service that is high value for them, and that this is a key way in which AOs compete) so a reduction in competition in that part of the product chain could potentially have negative effects on customer service.”

They also identify that: risks associated with reforms in one part of the market (e.g. adult vocational qualifications) are likely to be significantly dependent on decisions made about reforms in other parts of the market (e.g. young persons’ vocational qualifications).” It is this lack of a ‘joined up’ approach to reforms across technical education that has, I feel, led to disconnected outcomes in the past.

We can hope that following the release of these research findings, the DfE are taking a wider and longer view of current vocational education reform, both pre and Post-16, working with the sector to create vocational qualifications that continue to make the grade.


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