Don't Forget the 'Other 50%': The Role Vocational Education Plays in Social Mobility

Politicians from all parties are in agreement on the importance of the UK becoming more socially mobile. People should have the same chances to develop and prosper regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

Politicians from all parties are in agreement on the importance of the UK becoming more socially mobile. People should have the same chances to develop and prosper regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

Education clearly has a critical role in ensuring this vision becomes a reality and all parts of the education system need attention so that people are given the opportunity to develop skills to build long and sustained careers - whatever their background.

As Chief Executive of AAT, the UK's leading qualification and professional body for vocational accountants, I am eager to promote the role vocational education can play in enhancing social mobility, and inspire a conversation across the education sector, and with government, to explore how we can all do more as agents of social mobility.

In 2013, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission launched their first annual 'State of the Nation' report. Of primary interest to me, was the finding that identified a lack of public policy focus on the so-called 'other 50%' who do not go through higher education.

Two years later, the third annual 'State of the Nation' report has been published and refers to a similar theme, a ''16-plus' divide between youngsters who go on to university and those who do not'. The Commission also reported growing social divides in income and class as well as gender and ethnicity. In my position, I am acutely aware of these challenges and want AAT to be part of the solution -helping people progress their lives for the better.

The '16-plus' divide is at odds with other OECD countries such as Germany and Australia that attribute great prestige to vocational education. The UK has long prioritised funding towards higher education, and with that the 'high achievers'. In some areas, such as apprenticeships, there has been a recent shift in focus; however, the cultural significance attached to higher education still presents a difficult conundrum for the life chances of those choosing or forced to go through other routes.

The practical benefits of vocational education are clear and the contribution it can make to that 'other 50%' is significant. Learners develop practical skills, valuable work experience and attain qualifications. To indicate the financial viability of apprenticeships, a key area of vocational education, research published by AAT in 2014 showed apprentices delivered around £1.8 billion net economic benefits to UK organisations. They are valued by employers, and this is highlighted by EY and Penguin Random House' decision to remove the degree requirement in their recruitment processes.

The latest 'State of the Nation' report contains a healthy dose of scepticism around the progress of social mobility in the UK today. So what are the life chances of those most disadvantaged?

According to the research, income mobility of adults still heavily depends on their parent's level of wealth, a trend strengthening over time. This is particularly stark for those able to access law, accountancy and medicine courses at UK universities. Too often they are from 'above average' backgrounds. AAT actively work against these forces; 70% of our students' parents did not go through higher education, 18% lived in households that received income support, and 15% were eligible for free school meals. Our high quality vocational courses help students bridge this gap, helping them secure successful careers, often going on to become chartered accountants.

Another area of concern is the progress of women in employment where 27% are paid less than the living wage compared to 17% of men. Our students, 65% of whom are women, are using AAT as an opportunity to progress in the finance profession.

So what role do the Government envisage vocational education playing in creating a high skilled high wage economy? Whilst it is clear further education is experiencing swathes of cuts to their budgets, the Government has committed to an ambitious target of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. This ambition is welcome, but as it stands, demand significantly outstrips supply, particularly for higher apprenticeships.

This emphasis on apprenticeships has delivered some change, the raw numbers demonstrate this. In 2009/10 there were 279,900 apprenticeship starts, in 2014/15 this number had nearly doubled to 499,900, demonstrating a dramatic shift in public policy. We are supportive of the Government's apprenticeship drive and the Commission's recommendation to get 30,000 young people a year starting a higher apprenticeship by 2020. With funding pressures on further education taking hold, it is vital that access to courses delivering valuable skills such as accounting are maintained. Should the Government achieve this recommendation, it will be a vital indicator of the impact vocational education can have on upward mobility.

Access to skills, access to labour markets and career progression sit at the centre of the Government's plan. So where does this leave us? AAT is passionate about supporting people of all ages and realise that being flexible is central to this. For a start, we support the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's recommendation to develop a UCAS-style website for vocational education. This will help focus people's ambition and strengthen the brand of vocational education through improving awareness of what their progression, employment and earning opportunities will be. We are pleased to be part of a national conversation on the role of vocational education in social mobility and urge other providers to take part too.

The government has ambitious targets to create a 'one nation' Britain where 'a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing'. Vocational education can play a vital role in stimulating social mobility and so employers, training providers and the Government must work together to make this vision a reality. I relish the challenge.


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