Skip to content

Blog post

Vocationalism in Further and Higher Education

Sai Loo Jill Jameson

One of the most striking characteristics of the post-compulsory education sector in England is the teaching of programmes with a vocational route to work. There is a tenacious underlying perception, deriving from centuries of social stratification and selectivity in the status and provision of different kinds of education in England, that vocational education is inevitably more narrowly utilitarian, less influential and less important than its more academic cousin: advanced (‘A’) levels. We could summarise this as the enduring ‘lack of parity’ debate. This divide between the sectors of ‘vocational’ and ‘higher’ education, in many ways peculiarly English in its intersections with considerations of class, socio-economic stratification and regionality, is also reflected in structural formation esteem and funding of higher education institutions and in occupations (in terms of academic credentials and a number of related provisions). These enduring academic-vocational divisions in the ‘English model’, together with negative societal and political perceptions, have to some extent stymied the debate regarding the significance and relevance of vocational education provision to learning, work and the economy.

Our edited book aims to debate some of the main issues relating to vocationalism in higher and further education. In Chapter 2, following the Introduction, Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen provide a present-day analysis of higher-level apprenticeships (equivalent to first degree level) in England. In Chapter 3, Geoffrey Elliott investigates leadership in FE institutions in the neo-liberal era and concludes that mergers in the sector are “a clear consequence of the introduction of a real market in further education”. Chapter 4 by Jill Jameson, Hugh Joslin and Sharon Smith summarise the entrapment of continuously repeating cycles of dysfunctionalities in FE-HE apprenticeship qualifications and provides ground-breaking progression data from the ESRC HIVE-PED[i] Research Seminars Project. In Chapter 5, Prue Huddleston argues for an integrated approach to offering successful vocational courses. Erica Smith, in Chapter 6, investigating the Australian vocation education and training, is critical of the social constructions of ‘low-skilled’ occupations associated with traineeships and the ‘higher-skilled’ occupations of apprenticeships. In Chapter 7, Sai Loo focuses on the education of teachers with occupational experiences who teach on occupation-related/vocational programmes in the further education sector in England. Chapter 8, by James Avis, conceptualises vocationalism from the standpoint of England as a knowledge-based economy. In Chapter 9, Ann-Marie Bathmaker considers solutions to the problematic translation of theoretical, applied and work-related knowledge for learners in general vocational education in England. Karen Evans in Chapter 10 offers a concept of ‘Putting Knowledge to Work’ to investigate how learning by those in different settings such as work and learning institutions utilise their know-how.

The ‘English model’ as described by past researchers, tends to concentrate more narrowly on skills acquisition for specific employability than on a combination of theoretical knowledge and workplace holistic occupational preparation that might better equip students for the development of a longer-term career. This English separation between the sectors of skills-based ‘vocational’ and knowledge-based ‘higher’ education, as described by our researchers, has therefore partly led to and partly arisen from divisive societal and political perceptions of vocational education and training in which there is a lack of parity of esteem between ‘vocational’ and ‘higher’ education. We argue that this has reduced the impact of vocational education provision – and its prospective connection with HE and professionalism – limiting its potentially beneficial contributions to achieve wide-ranging learning for life, to develop broader conceptions of citizenship and cultural capital, to contribute more expansively to society and to stimulate original innovations for the growth of the economy.

As we and other post-compulsory education researchers have argued, these divisions between higher and further education need to be revisited to form new pathways to the future for an improved understanding and a new exploration of what ‘vocational’ education really means. Such a potential for more widespread research investigations into new further and higher pathways across the currently divided higher and further sectors for the advancement of scientific, industrial, creative and innovatory business professions in the knowledge economy, completely reconceptualising and transforming the ‘English model’ for a new future.


For further information of the research monograph, please refer to

[i] ESRC funded Higher Vocational Education and Pedagogy (ESRC HIVE-PED) Research Seminar Series: for info and copies of presentations and papers please go to: