Opening the Door to Social Mobility - Using Vocational Education as Its Lever

17/06/2016 09:21 | Updated 17 June 2016

Endless reports have referred to an imbalance in funding between higher education and vocational education and the traditional stigma that is associated with FE. Not least, the recent Lords Select Committee for Social Mobility report which found recent government policy has protected schools and university funding "but the same is not true for post-16 institutions". My recent post referring to the 'other 50%', the term referring to young people not going to university when they leave school, looked at just this.

AAT recently commissioned research to analyse the public perception of the value of different educational routes for better career progression. We were told that young adults (18-24) and older adults (55-64) fundamentally disagreed about what route was best for career progression. Young adults overwhelmingly favoured going to university whereas older adults said people could progress their careers further through vocational routes. Irrespective of age, 63 per cent of UK adults said vocational education prepares people most effectively for work.

These findings come as part of our most recent report, 'Roadmap for 2016: Supporting Social Mobility through Vocational Education'. The positive message about vocational education clearly isn't filtering down through the system to our youth. So what is being done about this? Nicky Morgan has taken steps to end 'outdated snobbery' towards alternative routes and the two tier system of careers advice where only the lowest-achieving pupils are recommended apprenticeships or alternative pathways.

One central pillar to broadening access to the best jobs can be achieved through a genuine effort to improve careers advice. Getting this wrong comes at a cost; young people can suffer by making an uninformed decision about their career path or even underestimating their potential. The current system is unevenly weighted in favour of the university pathway, which is not suitable for all. Information must be presented fairly, and our recommendation for the Government to explore the possibility of integrating higher and vocational education opportunities into one UCAS style online portal, asks for just that. Ultimately, the Government must wake up to the problematic status quo, as equipping the next generation with the skills they need to find meaningful employment fits the Government's pressing desire to increase the UK's poor productivity levels, which lag badly behind our G7 partners.

The Government is moving in the right direction, but employers, schools and young people need to be given the tools and incentivised appropriately to realise their ambition. As it stands, barriers to entry into the job market limits upward mobility, and AAT are calling on the Government to work with employers to end recruitment specifications that exclude candidates from non-higher education backgrounds. In tandem to this, employers should be encouraged to carry out 'blind interviews' where the school and/ or university background of the candidate is only revealed to the recruiter once they have been offered the job. Not only will this remove a barrier to entry that dictates the choices of school leavers, it will make access fairer and provide employers with a valuable source of talent and skills honed through vocational education. Incentivising employers to take this step is crucial and we'd like to see the Government establishing a 'Social Mobility Employer' accreditation to encourage employers to adopt inclusive recruitment measures.

Nicky Morgan's actions are overwhelmingly supported by our research, which suggests nine in ten adults think the Government needs to do more to recognise vocational education and UK employers need to do more to promote access to jobs through alternative routes. If there are restrictions limiting access to work, it is little wonder young people perceive university to be the best pathway to employment - for most it is the only route.

At the heart of AAT's recommendations are the requirements to broaden the recognition of talent and rebalance the careers advice offered to school leavers. The Government's ambition to tackle social mobility, productivity and youth unemployment will be an easier one to achieve if fairness sits at the heart of their reforms.