Proposals unveiled by Andy Burnham could transform vocational learning for the better.

This article is taken from The Guardian.

Well over half of young people do not go on to university after leaving school, and our education system is letting many of them down. Further education colleges and sixth forms offering technical pathways into work have been grievously underfunded for years. New vocational qualifications, designed as an alternative to more academic GCSEs and A-levels, have been poorly understood and insufficiently valued by employers. The value and importance of apprenticeships is routinely acknowledged in Westminster; but the education select committee last month reported a steep and long-term decline in the number of under-19s actually doing one.

The net result is a shameful waste of the potential of millions of school pupils, with knock-on economic effects in terms of growth and productivity. The challenges represented by the green economy, artificial intelligence and an ageing population mean that Britain can ill afford to neglect the formation and prospects of the majority of its future workforce. But a reset is required to restore status, value and resources to non-university routes to employment.

To that end, the government should carefully consider proposals unveiled on Wednesday by the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. Building on new “trailblazer” devolution, Mr Burnham wishes to introduce a new Manchester baccalaureate (Mbacc) for 14- to 16-year-olds, offering a vocational alternative to the existing English baccalaureate (Ebacc). Almost two-thirds of 16-year-olds in Greater Manchester either do not pursue or do not achieve an Ebacc, which comprises a suite of academic subjects and acts as a gateway to A-levels and university. The Mbacc would group together different options, ranging from engineering to the creative arts, combined with core study of English, maths and digital technology.

Mr Burnham’s idea is partly a rebranding exercise, but that should be seen as one of its strengths. In 2016, the Sainsbury review identified a pressing need in technical education for “a well-understood national system of qualifications that works in the marketplace”. Decades of ad hoc and muddled reforms imposed by Whitehall have failed to deliver buy-in both from students and employers. Backed with sufficient political capital, and developed in conjunction with regional employers, the Mbacc could help generate a new prestige for skills-based learning and respond directly to local industry needs. A majority of students would be expected to progress to higher technical qualifications and have access to guaranteed apprenticeships in Greater Manchester.

Much of the detail will need to be clarified between now and September 2024, when Mr Burnham hopes to launch the Mbacc in schools. It is important, for example, that children are enabled to keep their options open at school for as long as possible. But the thrust of these plans, and above all the commitment to restoring a parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes, is in the right direction.

A great deal of energy and creativity has rightly been devoted to widening university access. More of the same is now needed elsewhere in the system, to give the best possible platform to those who choose not to do a degree. The Cinderella status of FE colleges has been symptomatic of a broader political mindset that has undervalued, underresourced and underpromoted skills-based training. Greater Manchester’s proposals can be part of a new template to put that right.