Reforms to vocational education must work for the arts

 17 February 2016

Vocational education in the UK is in the midst of major reform. While it's great that the Government wants to ensure vocational education supports students to get to the next level, a one-size-fits-all approach simply won't work.

UAL Awarding Body’s end of year show
UAL Awarding Body’s end of year show

The Department for Education (DfE) is taking what it believes are positive steps in response to the issues set out by Professor Alison Wolf in her 2011 ‘Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf Report’. The report concluded that many 14-19 year olds were not progressing into secure employment or into higher-level education and training, and consequently action needed to be taken.

The UK’s world renowned creative industries are the fastest growing part of our economy.

One action taken by the DfE is the introduction of new performance tables for all providers of education and training for 16-19 year olds. Performance tables are divisive, but they are here to stay. More importantly, with the right methodology behind them these tables can be a valuable barometer of quality.

To be eligible for the DfE’s new performance tables, qualifications have to satisfy a new set of characteristics to be considered to have met a ‘quality bar’ that will support students to progress into employment, further education or training.

Incompatible with creative education

UAL Awarding Body absolutely supports this Government’s objectives of improving the quality of vocational qualifications available for young people and ensuring they support progression into employment or into HE or further training. In fact, those are the reasons why University of the Arts London (UAL) set up its own awarding organisation in the first place. However, we believe that the DfE’s definition of external assessment is incompatible with creative education:

“External assessment is a form of assessment in which question papers, assignments and tasks are specified by the awarding organisation, then taken under specified conditions (including details of supervision and duration) and marking or assessment judgements are made by the awarding organisation. It does not include moderation or verification of centre-based assessment undertaken by an awarding organisation.”

Portfolios will become less diverse, more repetitious and less creative

There are many reasons why this approach is not appropriate for the assessment of creative arts subjects. At Level 3, UAL Awarding Body expects students to demonstrate their ability to work independently which is a vital skill for progression to HE and employment in the creative industries.

We currently task students with identifying and writing their own final major project briefs. The DfE’s characteristic mean that students will no longer be able to formulate their own briefs and will instead have to respond to a brief or assignment set by their awarding organisation (as currently happens at A Level). As a result, portfolios will become less diverse, more repetitious and less creative, making it harder for universities to identify the right students for the right courses.

Qualifications will be less fit-for-purpose

The Foundation Diploma in Art & Design is taken by approximately 15,000 students each year and has historically been one of the best qualifications for securing progression to HE, with more than 90 per cent of students going on to undergraduate study. Yet the DfE has decided that the qualification does not meet its performance table characteristics.

The assessment of this extremely successful qualification – offered by leading specialist universities, FE and 6th form institutions including UAL, University for the Creative Arts, Ravensbourne, Leeds College of Art and Falmouth University – will need to be altered, and will become less fit-for-purpose as a result.

In December, the DfE published the lists of Level 3 qualifications that satisfy their characteristics across two categories – ‘Applied General’ (which primarily support progression to HE) and ‘Tech Level’ (which primarily support progression into employment). Only 36 per cent of all submissions met the DfE’s ‘quality bar’.

There was a marked reduction in the number of creative arts qualifications making the tables. 

Amidst the submissions, there was a marked reduction in the number of creative arts qualifications making the tables. For 2017 entry there were 29 ‘Applied General’ qualifications in creative arts subjects, yet shockingly for 2018 there are just five. For 2017 there were 30 ‘Tech Level’ qualifications, but for 2018 there are only eight.

As an awarding body, if we introduced a new qualification with a failure rate as high as this, we would quickly conclude that there is something drastically wrong. The DfE however is absolutely clear that the new characteristics are correct, and that awarding organisations must change their qualifications in order to meet them.

Employers in support of our qualifications

In a recent meeting with a leading national creative industries employer, which is in the process of setting up a new school, I explained that our Level 3 qualifications would continue to be accredited by Ofqual, would attract public funding and would have UCAS tariff points attributed to them, but would not feature in performance tables.

They were confused. As an employer, they believe that our qualifications will provide their students with valuable experience that is relevant, contemporary and will support them in taking their next step. It seems odd that the DfE disagrees.

We will continue to try to engage the DfE in a dialogue to secure a positive outcome for arts education.

Nicky Morgan (Secretary of State, Education) recently visited a terrific specialist creative institution that delivers UAL Awarding Body qualifications at Levels 2 and 3. She was hugely complimentary about the students’ experience and the outcomes they were achieving, with large numbers progressing to HE or employment.

Yet the same qualifications that she was complimenting do not meet the ‘quality bar’ set by the DfE and will not feature in its upcoming performance tables. This also seems odd.

We need a better outcome for arts education

UAL Awarding Body wholeheartedly support this Government’s desire to ensure that vocational education supports students to get to the next level of education or training, or into employment. What’s clear is that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work; we’ve seen it before with GNVQs and AVCEs to name just one failed attempt to reform vocational education.

We will work hard to meet the characteristics, despite their shortcomings, and we will continue to try to engage the DfE in a dialogue to secure a positive outcome for arts education.

The UK’s world renowned creative industries are the fastest growing part of our economy, but they won’t be if we fail to protect the pipeline of talent in our schools, colleges and universities.

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