University of Leicester eBulletin

Twenty-first Century Vocational Education in the UK: What Would Dickens Think?

May 2002
No 99

Work in the new millennium for some young people would not be out of place in a Dickensian novel, says a leading professor of vocational education at the University of Leicester.

Professor Lorna Unwin has hit out at the UK's approach to vocational education which, she says, has become more confused and impoverished than ever.

Professor Unwin, based at the respected Centre for Labour Market Studies at the University of Leicester, delivers her inaugural lecture, 21st Century Vocational Education in the UK: What Would Dickens Think? on May 21st 2002.

She said: "Despite its central importance to contemporary society, vocational education in the UK is being dissipated. 

"Instead of celebrating skill and vocational knowledge, the UK has embroiled itself in tortuous debates about parity of esteem whilst, paradoxically, also attempting to reduce its once well-respected vocational qualifications to a thin soup of competence-based checklists.

"In 2002, young people can still find themselves apprenticed to employers who would not be out of place in a novel by Charles Dickens: some play a positive role in young people's lives, whilst others enslave them. 

"The government is currently seeking reactions to its Green Paper on 14-19 education and training in which vocational education is defined solely in terms of its value to the economy. The lecture argues, however, that in everyday life, vocational education supports people's need to create artefacts, to improve their surroundings, to fight against becoming de-skilled consumers, to feel part of the natural world, and to demonstrate the true extent of their capabilities."

To improve vocational education in the UK, the lecture recommends a series of measures:

         A redefinition of vocational education to embrace its social, cultural and economic relevance

         The establishment of a national research and development institute dedicated to vocational education

         Greater investment in the training and salaries of vocational teachers

         Much tighter regulation of employers who receive government funds for training.

Professor Unwin is currently researching the changing meaning of apprenticeship in the UK and the ways in which young people and older workers learn from each other in the workplace.

She was a core member of the National Skills Task Force Research Group and is a member of the DfES's 14-19 Education Panel. She has authored books on the subject.  

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Last updated: May 2002
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