The eighth Saudi technical conference and exhibition


I’m currently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the eighth Saudi technical conference and exhibition. This is essentially Saudi  Arabia’s main vocational education conference. It has been an amazing trip (last night I rode a camel as you can see from the picture). There is a lot of very exciting stuff going on in Saudi around vocational education. The people here see the development of the Saudi vocational education system as key to the reforms that they are trying to make to the country’s economy. Essentially trying to shift Saudi Arabia from an economy which is dependent on oil and on foreign labour to one which has a more balanced and broadly based economy.

Inevitably I’m here to argue that career guidance is an important part of the development of the vocational education system. I think that career guidance will be important for the country as a way to engage young people in the vocational education system, as a way to ensure that the skills developed through the vocational education system are well utilised in the economy and to support the growth of a closer relationships between education and employment.

To this end I gave a  keynote speech yesterday (click on it to download the slides).


I also gave a longer workshop with policy makers and vocational education principals from Saudi and other gulf states (again click to download).


Once again I’ve found this trip really interesting. In particular it has helped me to get a bit closer to practice in Saudi Arabia, whereas my previous trips here have mainly been focused at the policy level.



Employers’ experience of Higher Apprenticeships


We have just published a new report looking at employers attitudes of Higher Apprenticeships.

Mieschbuehler, R., Hooley, T. and Neary, S. (2015). Employers’ Experience of Higher Apprenticeships: Benefits and Barriers. Derby and Melton Mowbray: International Centre for Guidance Studies, University of Derby and Pera Training.

This report examines employers’ experience and understanding of Higher Apprenticeships. We surveyed almost 200 companies and conducted follow-up interviews with eleven employers. We found that employers were very positive about the idea of Higher Apprenticeships although many had not engaged with them yet.

The employers that have employed higher apprentices within their companies felt that they had contributed a range of benefits to their businesses. We also talk about some of the perceived and actual barriers to the implementation of Higher Apprenticeship programmes.

We’d be really interested to hear more about people’s experiences of studying and delivering higher apprenticeship programmes.

Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce (The Wood Commission)

Many of those of us in England won’t have noticed the release of the final report of the Wood Commission. However, I think that it is worthy of note, because it probably offers one of the most systematic attempts to think about the education and employment system in the UK. In many ways it echoes the findings of a host of similar reports, but it uses a wider canvas than many of its equivalents in England.

The Commission sought to develop a strategy for Scotland to support young people to be work ready as they leave the education system. This tasked was framed around three main policy goals.

  1. A desire to minimise failed transitions and to support social and economic inclusion.
  2. A desire to ensure that the Scottish economy works effectively, that the right skills are available, that potential is harnessed and productivity increased.
  3. The hope that an improved education and employment system would in turn contribute to a more equal society.

The Commission builds on Curriculum for Excellence (which I wrote about back in 2010) to try and look at how education and employment in Scotland can be better aligned. In essence both Wood and CfE look at how education can support the economy without it becoming narrowly utilitarian. I have always felt that the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence were really worthy, although I’ve noted that the implementation has been somewhat more difficult than might have been originally imagined.

The Wood Commission therefore builds on this landscape of educational experimentation to suggest some ways forward for Scotland. As might be expected there is some familiar ground here, with key messages including:

  • Lots of talk about “parity of esteem” between university and vocational routes.
  • Enhancing work experience for young people while they are at school.
  • Better careers information, advice and guidance. Although one particularly distinctive message is that the Wood Commission sees an enhanced role for teachers in this space.
  • Maintaining Colleges as focused on vocational education rather than allowing them to drift into being university-lite.
  • Reinvigorating Apprenticeships.
  • The need to revive the moribund youth labour market and encourage employers to employ more school and college leavers.
  • A more collaborative education landscape where colleges and schools work together to ensure the best outcomes for young people.
  • Stronger education/employment partnership including participation in college governance, provision of work experience and careers advice, collaboration in curriculum development, the development of real life business projects for students and the input of industry to teaching.

The Wood Commission was far more wide ranging than many of the reports that I’ve been writing for the last five years or so, but there are a number of points of overlap, in particular with arguments that we made in Careers 2020 and Fostering Career and College Readiness: young people should be encouraged to think about their futures from an early age, they should have access to a range of experiences to help them to do this, access to information, advice and guidance and a strong connection between their subject-based curriculum and their career learning. Wood rehearses many of these points and suggests that there is a need for a new standard to ensure good quality career guidance and work-related learning.

It also goes on to argue for more structural changes to the education system. This is not just about career education but also about the development of new and stronger vocational pathways within the school and college system. Beyond this it is important to develop the Apprenticeship system to allow clearer and more prestigious progression routes for the young people who take those routes. Finally it also call for incentives and campaigns to engage employers with young people.

The Wood Commission is very clear that the development of these new career and vocational opportunities should be available to all young people regardless of race, gender, disability or other equality strand.

So far, so good. This kind of stuff is very much what a lot of us have been hoping would happen in the UK for a long time. However, the real question is whether the ideas of the Wood Commission can actually get any traction and drive real change in Scotland. Despite the idealism of Curriculum for Excellence, the jury remains out – so can Wood lead towards a sea change in Scotland?

Scottish Government certainly welcomed the report and quickly found £4.5 million to implement it (Labour quickly moved to say that it wasn’t enough). The report was also welcomed by a number of other stakeholders such as Business in the Community, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Career Development Institute and the Education Institute Scotland. Education Scotland have been given the key role in implementing the Wood Commission report in Scotland’s schools alongside Skills Development Scotland. The twin challenges of engaging both the education system and employers shouldn’t be under-estimated but Scotland has a number of unique opportunities that means that I might be setting aside my usual pessimism.

Scotland might just be able to pull off something like this for a number of reasons. These include the relatively high level of political consensus that exists in the country around these kinds of issues. If you put the question of independence to one side (and I think that we have just done that for a few years at least), then Labour and the SNP aren’t really all that different. Secondly the size of the country’s population means that catalysing change is somewhat easier than in England. As Ronald Sultana notes small states are not just scaled down versions of large states. The change in scale brings changes in the nature of social capital and the distance between the political class and the rest of the population. This may make it considerably easier to achieve lasting change in Scotland.

More recently the development of Curriculum for Excellence (with Education Scotland as the agent of change) and the multi-headed careers and skills organisation that is Skills Development Scotland all offer huge opportunities for advancing the cause of career and vocational education in Scotland. While it is important to remember that the German vocational education system has been built over hundreds of years, we shouldn’t let this blind us to the possibility of building lasting change in education systems that have had weaker vocational traditions. At the moment it feels like a lot of the ducks are in a row. Whether, in the aftermath of Wood, the advocates of career and vocational education will be able to capitalise on this and catalyse real change remains to be seen.

Central Technical School

Also on our itinary today was a visit to Central Technical School in the heart of Toronto.  As ever when I visit schools I am bowled over by the energy of the staff and students. Whether it is being handed the fanstic school art and literature magazine (Forge) or hearing about the way in which the school has built a relationship with Canadian author Robert Rotenberg as part of its literature programme, there was much to recommend Central Technical School.

From a UK perspective the school represents a kind of school that we don’t really have. It is 14-18 (although some students stay on until 21 for various reasons), comprehensive in ethos, vocationally orientated, but also able to offer conventional academic programming, and very big on work experience (in the form of co-operative education). In someways this is perhaps what Lord Baker is trying to create with the University Technical Colleges, however, in Canada this is well established rather than an experimental like the UTCs.

A number of things stood out for me. Firstly staff were keen to emphasise that vocational/technical education couldn’t be seen as a route for those who couldn’t hack the academic route. Many of the vocational courses required strong academic skiils. Secondly they pointed out that this was not a cut price education. Vocational education needs to be bang up to date and relies on expensive equipment to allow students to learn their skills. This was underlined by a visit to the huge automotive workshop where various vintages of cars were available for students to work on.

Another element that stood out for me was the strong attention that is given within the school to exposing students to a range of different opportunities and the careful thinking that has been done about how to give people second and third chances when their first ones don’t work out. Students have the opportunity to stay engaged with school for longer and to explore various options whilst they are there. All of this is also backed up by support from guidance counsellors who help students with course and career decision making as well as providing pastoral support.

I’m looking forward to seeing other Toronto schools over the next couple of days to see how typical or otherwise this schools is and to help me to think more about how the exciting practices that I’m seeing in Toronto might influence my thinking about the UK.

Senior Research Fellow – Vocational Education: Work at iCeGS

We are currently advertising the post of Senior Research Fellow: Vocational Education at iCeGS. We are really excited about this new post as it will enable our Centre to develop our expertise in the area of Vocational Education and to build connections between the worlds of careers and vocational education. I don’t know whether any of the readers of this blog will be interested, but it would be great to get a good field for this post.

Good luck if you think about applying.

Mike Rowe on the need to value vocational skills

I chanced across this interesting clip on a LinkedIn group I’m a member of.

It is a guy called Mike Rowe giving evidence to a government committee in the US. He is a broadcaster who makes a programme called “Dirty Jobs”. He’s talking about our alienation from practical work and the importance of valuing the range of skills that society needs to function effectively. He argues that the education system is pushing people away from vocational tracks.

I really like the way that Mike makes the argument. I’m not sure that the education system can carry all the blame here, but there is clearly something in what he says. Have a look and see what you think


What is Alison Wolf arguing in her review of vocational education?

Much of the response to the Wolf Review has focused on her criticisms of existing vocational qualifications. While some of these criticisms are harsh, they actually make up far less of the review than the reporting suggests. Wolf’s general points are more interesting and seem to be being obscured by a bun fight about particular qualifications and their value. So in this blog post I thought that I’d try and look at what some of her main points were.


Wolf argues that the labour market for young people has changed and that attempts to address this through vocational qualifications fail to provide solutions for young people. In particular she argues that in an era when most people want their children to go to University, there are too many qualifications that are educational dead-ends and which also provide little value in the labour market. The review argues that vocational qualifications are important, but that in their present form they are not delivering what young people or the economy needs. It seems to me that she is making four main points.


The first main argument of the Wolf Review is about the nature of educational programmes. She argues that there is a need to move away from a mix and match collection of qualifications of varying value towards the development of coherent programmes of learning. This sense of seeing an educational intervention as a holistic lifewide one rather than a discrete skills-based chunk is appealing. The argument is that bolting together courses out of tiny chunks of learning material is unlikely to lead to a satisfying or valuable educational experience. Educational programmes need to be designed and thought needs to go into how the bits fit together as well as what the bits are. In order to facilitate this process awarding bodies and educational institutions need to be freed up to create new programmes and awards. Furthermore she argues that funding should follow the individual rather than the qualification.


Wolf’s second main argument is that there is value in young people having greater experience of the labour market before they are 19.  As young people’s labour market participation has generally dropped there is a need to address this through various forms of work-based learning, placements, internships and apprenticeships. Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that employers are good at providing vocational educational and facilitating skills development. Finally it is important to recognise that employers value labour market experience over qualifications and so it is valuable to find a way to provide young people with this as part of their educational experience.  


Wolf’s third main argument is that life success is underpinned by competence in GCSE level Maths and English. While vocational education clearly has a value, if it is delivered in a way that enables young people to avoid developing competence in English and Maths then it is failing them. Without English and Maths people are likely to be unable to develop a consistent relationship with the labour market.


Wolf’s fourth main argument is that vocational education needs to develop people in a way that enables them to manage occupational change. The NVQ type approach of reducing jobs down to quantifiable competencies is unlikely to be able to do this as it focuses on what is currently done rather than the underlying principles or the ability to transfer skills between contexts. Given the dynamic nature of occupations and the labour market this is essential. One concept that Wolf uses to discuss this is the idea of “delaying specialisation” until later on in the educational career.


Do people agree with this as a working summary of the underlying ideas in the Wolf review? What have I missed/got wrong?