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Last reviewed on 12 November 2020
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School types: All · School phases: Secondary

Read advice from 3 of our experts on how you can provide a vocational education that meets the needs of your pupils at KS4 and is adapted to the context of your school.

We share advice from our associate experts in curriculum design and school improvement – Ben White, Gary Forrest and Mark Trusson.

Balance vocational qualifications with accountability measures

Finding a balance between school performance measures like progress 8 and the needs of your pupils can be difficult. 

A maximum of 3 vocational qualifications are accepted in the 'open slot' of the progress 8 measure. So you may not want to let pupils take more than 3 vocational qualifications. Read more about progress 8 this article.

Consider these factors when deciding the best balance of vocational options to offer at Key Stage (KS) 4:

The academic ability of your pupils

Vocational qualifications are equivalent to GCSEs, despite some people viewing them as the ‘easy option’. 

Pupils who are unlikely to achieve higher grades at GCSE level will likely also struggle with alternative level 2 courses. You may want to offer level 1 courses to these pupils instead.


Progression post-16

Look at what qualifications are needed for post-16 courses. Some level 2 vocational qualifications don’t provide pupils with the skills and knowledge they need for a level 3 course.

Talk to FE colleges and local employers and ask which vocational qualifications they look out for.


Accredited qualifications

Use the DfE's list of approved qualifications when choosing which vocational qualifications to offer. Check it regularly as it can change from year to year.


Vocational alternatives to GCSEs

Make sure you're offering a broad and balanced set of options for KS4 pupils. Consider offering vocational alternatives to GCSE subjects like the performing arts, as well as more job-specific vocational options. 

Make the most of your curriculum structure

Find opportunities in what you're teaching already 

Look at your whole curriculum from year 7 onwards and identify where:

  • Vocational skills are already being developed
  • There are opportunities to develop vocational skills further in existing subjects

You can fill these gaps with ‘vocational experiences’. For example, you could:

  • Teach personal money management alongside the maths curriculum
  • Offer work experience opportunities. Another article looks at guidance on work experience and examples of provision in schools.

Involve all pupils in these activities, not just those taking vocational qualifications. 

Give GCSE subjects more time

Consider whether you could reduce the number of subjects pupils take at KS4. This would give you and pupils more time to spend on each subject, allowing time to teach vocational skills that don't directly make up part of the qualification. 

If you don't want to reduce the number of subjects pupils take, you could implement a 3-year KS4. This'll also give you more time for each subject, or let you provide optional vocational courses in the extra time available.

Another of our articles looks at managing a condensed KS3 and a three-year KS4.

Manage the costs of vocational education

Identify the minimum requirements

There are a range of set-up costs and running costs associated with vocational subjects. Conduct a careful review of the minimum resource requirements, identifying and separating necessities and 'preferred' resources.

For example, specific brands of equipment may be preferred for ICT, media or photography, but you may not necessarily need them and you might find cheaper options which would save the school money.

Deliver common sessions together

Many vocational subjects, such as health and social care and engineering, share common sessions covering the same content. Teach these at the same time, so you use staff time and resources more efficiently.

You can also organise and offer visits by employers in a common session.

Generate additional revenue

Some schools use vocational courses to generate revenue, such as in hairdressing or catering. However, this may only produce a limited source of additional money.

Get in touch with local businesses which have an interest in the vocational courses you offer as you may be able to secure donations or sponsorship from them.

Get in touch with other schools, businesses and FE colleges to share resources 

Consider federating with a school that has facilities you don’t. Within federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs) it can be easier to share staff and specialist facilities.

Set up agreements with local FE colleges to access their resources. They'll likely be interested in the courses being offered to students pre-16, and so may offer support and allow you to deliver sessions on their premises.

You may also be able to use specialist facilities in private centres. For example, using a hair apprentice centre to deliver one of its vocational qualifications.


Ben White is the director of curriculum at an ‘outstanding’ secondary school and research director for Ashford Teaching Alliance. He is also a specialist leader of education. Ben’s areas of experience include staff development, curriculum reform, evidence-based practice, and effective assessment and evaluation.

Gary Forrest is a curriculum adviser with expertise in curriculum and qualifications design and development, work-related and vocational learning, careers education and education-business links. Formerly with the QCDA, he was a manager in the 14-19 education division.

Mark Trusson is a headteacher and National College accredited school improvement partner. He has previously served as the principal and director of a multi-academy trust, and has expertise in the innovative use of ICT with pupils and leading church schools.

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