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Understanding Vocational/Technical Pathways to Inform Policy at the Local Level

by Jo Blanden and Sandra McNally (Centre for Economic Performance, LSE and University of Surrey)

While the UK’s University system may be seen as one of the best in the world, its vocational education and training has received heavy criticism. The relatively high number of people with poor basic skills and low number of people with high-level vocational skills are long-standing national challenges and have been highlighted in many reports by the OECD, academics and UK government policy documents (such as the Industrial Strategy).

Concern about the limitations of vocational training at national level is coupled by alarm about educational inequalities between local areas, with some lagging far behind on GCSE and Key Stage 2 outcomes. Effective vocational education is seen as having the potential to raise individuals’ lifelong earnings and stimulate economic growth, especially through its ability to improve young people’s soft skills, which are found to be both malleable and valued by employers.

The aim of our Rebuilding Macroeconomics project is to extend the data and methods we have used at the national level to develop useful tools and analysis for local areas, giving context for efforts to improve local opportunities. We will begin to fill this gap by conducting a ‘quantitative case study’ into four local authorities in South East Hampshire.

Quantitative Case Study

Recent research at the Centre for Vocational Education Research has made use of matched administrative data from education and tax records which tracks individuals from school, through their further/higher education and into their early career (i.e. the LEO data). The data has revealed specific weaknesses of the UK post-16 system at the national level. These can be summed up as complexity, a lack of progression, and low labour market returns for some pathways (indicating that the skills obtained are not improving productivity).

Since 2017 the government has put £90million investment into 12 Opportunity Areas. Within these programmes there are plans to improve post-16 provision and careers advice and complement interventions to improve schools. However, there has been limited analysis of the variability of take up and outcomes of vocational education at local level and how this interacts with other factors such as GCSE attainment. Our research will conduct a ‘quantitative case study’ into four local authorities in South East Hampshire.

Portsmouth, Havant, Gosport and Fareham

The area we have selected is the Portsmouth conurbation. There are several areas within this locale which face particularly marked challenges.

In a 2015 exercise the Department for Education classified local authorities into six bands based on their pupils’ educational achievement and their local education system’s capacity for improvement. Both Portsmouth and Gosport appear in the bottom band, with Havant just one tier up. Gosport and Havant also appear in the bottom quartile of the 2015 social mobility index, which focuses on the differences in outcomes between disadvantaged and other children. While these areas were not included in the 12 Opportunity Areas, they are not very different from those that were.

However, there are some positive steps being made, as Havant Borough council have drawn attention in Central Government for their particularly ambitious regeneration proposals which state as a key objective “Working in partnership with business and educators to create job, education & training opportunities”. Our work will provide valuable information about the choices and progression routes of young people, which will help to inform regional decision-making.

Proposed Analysis

The analysis will begin by classifying the immediate post-16 pathways of young people in the Portsmouth area, comparing to them to the national average. This analysis will be performed for the area as a whole as well as for the most disadvantaged areas within it. As in Hupkau et al (2017)1 we will then link these initial choices with subsequent outcomes, such as progressing to a level 3 qualifications or apprenticeships, staying on in education at 18 and employment and earnings in the labour market. We will also investigate how this pattern at more disaggregated local level as well as its change over time. Looking at trends is particularly interesting as we will be able to cover the period when education or training became compulsory through to age 18.

A particular area of concern from our previous national results is that many people get stuck at relatively low levels of learning. For those starting out in further education within the broad class of qualifications known as ‘Level 2’ (equivalent to GCSEs), about 44% achieve at Level 3 qualification by the age of 20. This is true for 16% starting out at ‘Level 1’ (below GCSE level) and below at the age of 17. Furthermore, many people stay at low levels of qualification for multiple years, even though these courses are often of fairly short duration (and might be pursued part-time).

An important question is whether such patterns are more prevalent in disadvantaged areas compared to the national average? In addition, to what extent can they be explained by low levels of attainment at GCSE? Or do problems with vocational qualifications in disadvantaged areas exacerbate poor educational performance at school?

We will seek to complement this data work with more specific analysis about the opportunities available from local educational providers, and how these are affected both by the composition and attainment of potential students as well as through the involvement of local employers. This project will be helpful for policy makers by improving understanding of the operation of vocational education in this local area – as well as developing tools that might be applied to other areas in a similar way.

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