Qualifications alternatives: Vocational and A levels compared

The following is a presentation delivered to the Westminster Education forum Seminar: Reforms to Vocational Qualifications. Thursday January 14th 2106 in which we highlight some key trends in vocational and A level qualifications and implications for their value to students

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Good morning everyone and a happy new year to you all

My name is Geoff Hurst, and I am the MD of Altain Education a small team of marketing strategists specialising in qualifications. Prior to founding the agency I was the Director of Market strategy for AQA and I am also almost certainly the only guy that has been both the marketing director for both the professional body for marketers, CIM and the consumer champion, Which?

So what I want to do is to share some thoughts that draw on all of these experiences – thoughts on the respective students’ value propositions for vocational qualifications and A levels


A dual purpose  – introducing the students’ value proposition for vocational qualifications 

I would like to start with a question – What is it that students, value and how do we make it happen?

I think it safe to assume that enhanced employment/career prospects are top of this list. So for vocational qualifications the consumer value proposition is that doing the qualification better prepares you for the world of work and achieving it will help you to get into that job that you want. In order to deliver on this promise we need employers to be clear that they value students that have attained these qualifications

In fact it can be argued that qualifications are pretty valueless without this demand side aspect. So far, so obvious

However for higher level VQs there is a second job that they are expected to do and that it is to facilitate entry to university. So to deliver on this additional promise we similarly need universities to be clear that they value young people with these qualifications too

Then building on this still further there is long held policy ambition of ‘parity of esteem’ between qualifications – that is for VQ and A levels to be valued equally by all universities

So how is it all working out?

A rapid growth of vocational qualifications amongst prospective university students – but why? 

First let’s look at some trend data and projections from our friends at UCAS


Immediately striking is the growth of VQ – top right

It is clearly important to note that the total size of the cohort of 18 year olds is falling at the same time – top left

Perhaps the most interesting is the growth in the number of students taking a blend of VQs and A levels – at the bottom, something we return to later

So anyway, VQ is on the up

A mixed picture on demand from universities and calls for regulation of VQ marketing

However, whereas we might expect university demand to be a key driver of this growth the very influential Russell group of universities are resolute on a preference for A levels and more than that a preferences for particular A levels, ‘Facilitating’ subjects’, as detailed in the publication ‘Informed choices’

Against that it is undoubtedly the case that students with VQs can and do benefit from a university education and a Pearson think tank report (un)informed choices, aimed to put the record straight  and to be fair raised some good points about opaqueness in admissions policies. However more recently the Higher Education Academy (HEA) in a systematic analysis of outcomes – concluded that attainment by students entering research intensive universities with VQs was lower than those with A levels

In fact they then went on to say that their research provided ‘clear evidence that appropriate regulation is needed when marketing qualifications to students’. 

All of which possibly explains some of the confusion amongst students on the relative value of A level and vocational qualifications. This is really important because just like demand from employers is an essential ingredient in a qualifications value, demand from universities is too and wrong choices can undermine the hard work of everyone.

Responding to the challenge 

So what might be done? Well someone far smarter than me once said ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. It is with this in mind and a good degree of humility that we offer the following simple suggestion

1. Playing to strengths

That each qualification type should play to its strengths rather than compromising over weaknesses

a) This means that for VQs the consumer value proposition should be centred on being the most cost effective route to employment – and with employers hungry for skills and the bonus for students of being debt free what’s not to like?

b)  For A levels the consumer value proposition should be centred on being the optimum route to employment and careers via leading universities.

c) Then we would all then benefit from a more granular analysis of young people choosing a blend of A levels and vocational Qualifications

2. Special focus on VQ/A level blend

For the group of student contemplating a blend of VQ and A level we are suggesting a refresh of guidance on qualification choices following some new guiding principles

a) Let’s make it less about Institutional positioning, league tables and ideology

b) Let’s make it even more about the student’s requirements – creating qualifications pathways that are attractive, being sure that there is demand from universities and employers and targeting information advice and guidance (IAG) to where it’s needed most

For this ‘blended group’ we can also perhaps address the concerns raised by the HEA over qualifications marketing. Not just by reigning in marketing of some qualifications but also by strengthening and better communicating the consumer value propositions for A levels and indeed the new Tech levels

3. Valuing students’ individual choices and qualifications’ differences

Finally we do wonder if it is time to revisit the policy ambition for ‘parity of esteem’– As a suggestion let’s give parity to young people’s individual choices of route to employment, higher skills and careers – and with qualifications, let’s value their difference

Your views?

Do we need to rethink the relationship between vocational qualifications and A levels when it comes to university ? How strong is the case for regulation of qualifications marketing?  Should there be a special focus on the needs of young people contemplating a blend of VQs and A levels?

Please share your views in the comments section below


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