The Wolf Report

Share this page

Unionlearn briefing
April 2011


Last year the Secretary of State for Education commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to undertake a review of vocational education for young people aged under 19. Her final report was published last month and the Secretary of State responded saying that the government would immediately take forward four of her specific recommendations and publish a full response to the report shortly. This briefing paper highlights the main thrust of the recommendations in her report and the likely implications for policy development in the future.

The wider environment

The report includes a policy analysis which begins by arguing that various research studies show that '30 or 40 years ago vocational routes offered young people better and more secure prospects than is the case today'. However, Professor Wolf argues that this is not to say that we should try to hark back to a 'golden age', as the economy and labour market has changed to such a huge extent. According to the report, today's vocational education system should respond to the following five key developments in recent decades:

  • Full-time education or training to age 18 is now the dominant pattern in the developed economies.
  • There are also increasingly few jobs in the labour market for the under-18s as a result of a number of inter-related trends.
  • Employers continue to value and reward 'employment experience' and not just formal qualifications. At the same time good apprenticeships 'are valuable as much for the general skills they teach as for the specific ones'.
  • Good levels of English and Maths 'continue to be the most generally useful and valuable vocational skills on offer' and continue to be used to govern access to the most desirable academic and vocational courses.
  • Young people change jobs very frequently and they operate in a labour market that is in a constant state of flux, so they need to acquire a range of general skills as well as occupation-specific skills. In addition the vocational education system needs to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to change.

Key findings of the report

One of the major themes of the report is that too many young people are engaged in vocational courses that do not offer them a 'successful pathway into employment or higher education'. In particular, the following key challenges are highlighted:

  • Many 16 and 17 year-olds are 'churning' in and out of education and short-term employment in order to find a course that offers them progress to further/higher education or a permanent job, but are finding neither.
  • Between a quarter and a third of 16-19-year-olds (approximately 350,000) are engaged in vocational courses which 'have little to no labour market value', but which significantly help schools to improve their scores in league tables.
  • Whilst achievement of English and Maths GCSEs (at grades A*-C) are hugely influential to employment and education prospects, only 45% achieve this by the age of 16 and the achievement rate is still below 50% for the 18-year-old cohort.
  • Too few 16-18 year-olds are able to gain access to high quality apprenticeships and the increasing number of apprentices in recent years has disproportionately helped those aged 19+. Quality needs to be benchmarked against apprenticeship models in other countries, in particular regarding accessing more off-the-job training to support acquisition of a wider skill-set.
  • Too many 14-19-year-olds do not progress successfully into either secure employment or higher-level education/training and many leave without the skills that will enable them to do so at a later date.

Principles of reform

The report highlights a number of principles that should drive forward reform. First, it says that the system has 'no business tracking and steering' young people 'into programmes which are effectively dead-end'. Professor Wolf is especially critical of a number of lower-level vocational qualifications which have grown in popularity in schools in recent years, allegedly in part because they boost the league table scores of individual schools. She argues that there should be a focus on providing a programme of study for all young people which 'should provide for labour market and educational progress on a wide front, whether immediately or later in life'.

Secondly, she says that there must be much greater transparency about the outcomes from following certain pathways, particularly the research showing very poor earnings potential of certain qualifications (e.g. lower-level NVQs) and the higher earnings potential of others (e.g. higher level apprenticeships).

Not surprisingly, she recommends that simplification of the system must be a key principle on the basis that 'English vocational education is extraordinarily complex and opaque by European and international standards' largely due to the extent of overlapping government structures and initiatives. According to the analysis we could do much better by learning best practice from countries such as Denmark, France and Germany.

Main recommendations

The report includes 27 recommendations and the Secretary of State has said that the government will immediately accept four of them, as follows:

  • Allow further education lecturers to teach in school classrooms on the same basis as qualified teachers.
  • Clarify the rules on allowing industry professionals to teach in schools.
  • Allow any vocational qualification offered by a regulated awarding body to be taken by 14 to 19 year-olds.
  • Slash the red tape to temporarily allow high-quality, established vocational qualifications, which are valued by employers, to be offered in schools and colleges from September.

Main recommendations (school and college routes)

Some of the other recommendations relating to schools and FE, which the government has yet to respond to, are as follows:

  • Ensure that anyone who fails to achieve at least a 'C' in GCSE English or Maths must continue to study those subjects post-16.
  • Limit vocational studies and work experience for those aged 14-16 in order that this does not account for more than 20% of the timetable, but at the same time allow 14 to 16 year-olds to enrol in colleges so they can benefit from high-quality vocational training available there.
  • Make access to genuine work experience a much greater priority for 16-18 year-olds in school.
  • Remove the perverse incentives, created by the funding system and performance tables, to enter school students for low-quality vocational qualifications.
  • Change funding arrangements for post-16 provision so that it is based on the student (following the model for pre-16 provision).
  • Move regulation away from qualification accreditation towards oversight of awarding bodies.
  • Remove the obligation for qualifications for 16 to 19 year-olds to be part of the Qualifications and Credit Framework.
  • Increase Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities for maths teachers.
  • Young people who do not use the time-based entitlement to education (including apprenticeships) by the time they are 19 'should be entitled to a corresponding credit towards education at a later date'.

Main recommendations (apprenticeships)

In the conclusion and recommendations section of the report, Professor Wolf emphasises that 'increasing young people's access to apprenticeship is a government priority and of the utmost importance to the future of 16-18 vocational education'. She is also concerned that while 16-18 apprentices are legally full-time employees rather than students, 'they should, nonetheless, be primarily engaged in learning - including, primarily, generalisable and transferable skills [which] is standard practice in other countries with large apprenticeship programmes'. She makes reference to the fact that there are instances of apprentices simply following standard company training schemes and that it is 'difficult to see why some employees should have their company-specific training paid for [by government], simply because they are designated as apprentices.'

In line with this there are a number of specific recommendations relating to apprenticeships as follows:

  • The government should evaluate whether the general education components of 16-18 apprenticeship frameworks are adequate, especially as many of these young people will want to progress to FE/HE. It therefore does not appear appropriate that frameworks should continue to be drawn up entirely by Sector Skills Councils due to their focus on meeting the current needs of employers rather than wider learning objectives.
  • Provide additional subsidies for employers taking on young apprentices in order to influence the expansion of places that can be made available. These subsidies should only relate to the time that the apprentice spends with the employer in question as they must also have access to high-quality, off-the-job training, and an education with broad transferable elements.
  • DfE and BIS should review contracting arrangements drawing on best practice internationally with a particular focus on reducing the current heavy use of brokers (i.e. training providers) in the English system compared to other countries.
  • Promote greater use of Group Training Associations (GTAs) to support smaller employers to collectively engage in apprenticeships.

Some policy implications

Commenting on the report, the Secretary of State for Education said that 'it is essential, therefore, that we ensure the vocational routes offered to young people are high quality and are recognised by employers and further and higher education [and] Professor Wolf's recommendations will help us to do just that. They have set clear direction of travel that will lead to a real and sustained improvement in the vocational education on offer to young people in this country'.

A number of the recommendations in the report have the support of many trade unions, including the emphasis on not shifting young people into a wholly vocational pathway at too young an age and also retaining a focus on a broad education, including minimum achievement in English and Maths. In addition, some unions have welcomed the recommendation allowing further education lecturers to teach in school classrooms on the same basis as qualified teachers.

But there are also valid concerns that the criticism in the report of the recent expansion of vocational pathways in schools does not recognise their effectiveness in re-engaging many young people who would be put off by a return to a largely academic curriculum. And whilst it is beneficial that more young people will be able to re-sit English and Maths GCSEs, it is hardly credible that this approach will help all of the 50% who currently do not achieve this by the age of 18.

Some of Professor Wolf's recommendations are also in conflict with ongoing government policy. For example, the thrust of the new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) catering for 14-19 year-olds is based on young people specialising in a vocational approach at the age of 14. And in the Budget the Chancellor announced funding to double the number of UTCs so it appears that there is little likelihood of Professor Wolf's report barring the further expansion of this new form of institution.

As regards apprentices, unionlearn made the following comment following publication of the report: 'We agree with Professor Wolf's support for the expansion of high quality apprenticeships that will offer genuine career progression for young people. It is interesting that she makes the point that in general apprenticeships in the UK compare less favourably with those in many other European countries which tend to offer a broader level of training'.

Many of the recommendations in the report regarding apprenticeships throw out a huge challenge to employers, in particular the focus on quality and the need for employers to ensure that young apprentices are engaged in training that supports acquisition of a wider skill set and not just occupation-specific training. Recent criticisms by employers of the minimum standards relating to time off for training in the existing apprenticeship specification standard suggest that the government will have to take a very robust approach if they are going to require all employers with young apprentices to adopt the approach recommended by Professor Wolf.

Available at:

Hansard, 3rd March 2011

You Are Needed at your Workstation, Guardian, 29th March 2011

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Share this Page