The Wolf Review: Whose vocation is it anyway?

16 March 2011 by
The Wolf Review: Whose vocation is it anyway?

What's the time Mr Wolf? Time for a shake-up of the last Labour government's vision for vocational qualifications it would seem, following the publication this month of Professor Alison Wolf's scathing review.

Announced last year by education secretary Michael Gove, the review of vocational provision for 14- to 19-year-olds in England is wide-ranging, with the usual good intentions and admirable ambitions. It seeks in essence to simplify the bureaucratic further education sector and eradicate many of the pointless vocational qualifications that exist within it.

The report claims that a funding-led approach to vocational courses means that as many as 400,000 youngsters are currently studying courses that won't lead them to higher education or a good job at a time of significant youth unemployment.

Laudable stuff then, with Wolf's review concluding predictably that the existing system is broken and needs fixing. Urgently. Interestingly the belief that good vocational teaching does exist but is still not receiving the level of recognition it deserves, compared with academic disciplines, sounds pretty similar to what the coalition's red-rose predecessors were banging on about.

While boosting the standing of vocational qualifications can only benefit the hospitality industry in its never-ending bid to attract more skilled workers, operators could be forgiven for approaching the prospect of another major shake-up of vocational training with world-weary resignation.

The other significant risk associated with wholesale change, is the law of unintended consequences. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, experts believe that implementation of the report's Conservative-friendly notions of competition, increased efficiency and entrepreneurship within the college sector, could in reality be hugely damaging to hospitality's near-term ability to tackle the skills crisis.

Unintended consequences

According to Martin-Christian Kent, the director of policy and research at People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, several recommendations could result in employers finding it harder to recruit skilled staff.

"Professor Wolf wants to simplify the system for colleges and her recommendations, whilst doing this, would force employers back to relying on a small handful of colleges that have a historic reputation for offering hospitality courses," says Kent.

"Her recommendations could undermine the huge strides that have been undertaken by colleges in offering consistent chef qualifications, which has in turn increased employers' confidence in their ability to provide chefs with the skills they need."

Kent believes that awarding bodies' proposed freedom to offer the qualifications they wish could lead to a shortage of provision in certain areas. The shake-up could also undo the work done around creating entry pathways for chefs, including the Professional Cookery Diploma, while undermining the Government's attempts to encourage greater professional standards in general.

"Sector employers have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort putting back in place clear development pathways to help someone wishing to enter the sector find the right qualifications or training programme to develop the skills employers are seeking," says Kent.

"As a result of this work 200 qualifications have been removed over the past two years. This has simplified what's on offer and made it much easier for employers to understand the qualifications that new recruits have been studying."

Geoff Booth, chairman of the Professional Association of Catering Excellence (PACE), agrees. "The Wolf report proposes giving awarding bodies greater freedom - but there is a danger that this will take us right back to a time when employers complained of too many qualifications without much clarity in what they were useful for," he says.

However, PACE is in favour of plans to pay employers to recruit 16- to 18-year-old apprentices into the workplace, something that could benefit hospitality's search for good people. It also supports college's legal right to enrol pre-16s on training-related courses rather than have them locked into the school system.

In summary, Wolf acknowledges in her report that the majority of problems inherent in the current system come as a consequence of constant government meddling in recent decades. Despite this, it looks like that particular lesson hasn't be learnt and as a result hospitality's skills challenge is about to get harder.

how vocational training looks now

â- Number of enrolments for hospitality courses at colleges in England: 53,600

â- Number of enrolments for travel and tourism courses at colleges in England: 16,200

â- 300,000 to 400,000, the number of 16- to 19-year-olds doing courses of little value (Wolf)

â- 61,000 additional chefs required to meet demand in the next few years (People 1st).

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