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Last updated on 22 May 2017
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How can we provide an effective vocational education? We relay advice from three of our associate experts on how schools can provide an effective vocational offer at KS4 and develop vocational skills across the curriculum. We also look at how schools can keep costs manageable.

In our 2017 State of Education survey, nearly three-quarters (73%) of secondary school leaders told us that the current school system does not support them to deliver the best outcomes for pupils with an aptitude for vocational or technical subjects.

In this article, we relay advice from three of The Key’s associate experts with expertise in curriculum design and school improvement – Ben White, Gary Forrest and Mark Trusson – on how schools can address some of the common challenges to provide a vocational education that suits their students' needs. 

The impact of changes to accountability and qualifications

We spoke to Scott Baker, deputy headteacher of Sandringham School in Hertfordshire, about the impact of changes to accountability and qualifications.

He explained that both the progress 8 measure and changes to vocational qualifications could affect schools' offer at KS4, because:

  • The list of accredited vocational qualifications has been reduced, so there are fewer on offer for students
  • Reforms to these qualifications do not necessarily make them more accessible than GCSEs

In response, Sandringham School has reduced the number of optional subjects it offers, to increase the amount of teaching time per subject. The school currently only offers a vocational qualification in sports studies for those students wanting to pursue a more theoretical qualification than GCSE PE. 

Scott added that the school is looking at the accredited qualifications for 2017 to see if any would fit within its model.

Developing an effective vocational offer at KS4

Ben and Mark explained that schools face the challenge of meeting all students' needs while considering school performance in the progress 8 measure. Allowing students to take more than 3 vocational qualifications will affect the progress 8 score, which may discourage schools from channelling students to predominantly vocational subject choices.

An article from The Key explains that a maximum of 3 vocational qualifications is accepted in the 'open slot' of the progress 8 measure.

Below, we list factors to consider when developing a vocational offer at Key Stage (KS) 4 while taking into account the potential impact on progress 8.

Students' academic aptitude

Ben and Mark said that schools should consider students' academic aptitude when deciding on their offer of vocational and technical qualifications.

While vocational qualifications are sometimes viewed as an ‘easier’ option, they are equivalent to GCSEs. If students are unlikely to be able to achieve the higher grades at GCSE level, then alternative level 2 courses may also be inadvisable. It may be more appropriate, initially, to offer level 1 courses to these students.

Progression post-16

Gary advised that when deciding which qualifications to offer, schools should look at how students will be able to progress to suitable courses post-16 using their qualifications. In his experience, further education (FE) colleges have found that some level 2 vocational qualifications have not provided students with the skills and knowledge they need for a level 3 course.

Schools should consult with FE colleges and local employers to identify the most appropriate qualifications that will make students more employable.

Accredited qualifications

Ben and Mark advised that schools should use the list of approved qualifications published by the Department for Education (DfE) when deciding which vocational qualifications to offer. Schools should check the latest list as qualifications can be removed or added from year to year.

Approved technical and vocational qualifications for teaching from September 2017 can be accessed from the link below:

Vocational alternatives to GCSEs

Mark said that the more vocational courses students take, the more students are limited from accessing other GCSE subjects such as performing arts.

He advised that it might be worth including vocational alternatives to these subjects in the school's offer, as well as job-specific vocational courses, to ensure the offer is broad and balanced. Again, Mark said that schools need to make sure the courses are on the DfE’s approved list of qualifications so that they will contribute to the progress 8 measure.

Providing opportunities to develop vocational skills

Opportunities in the existing curriculum

Gary advised that schools should look at the whole curriculum from year 7 onwards to identify where vocational skills are already being developed and where there are opportunities to develop them further in existing subjects.

Vocational qualifications can give real-world context to core curriculum subjects

Schools may want to fill these gaps with ‘vocational experiences’, such as enrichment activities in KS3 or work experience in KS4. Where, ordinarily, opportunities for work experience may only arise as part of a vocational qualification, you might consider offering this to all students at the same time.

Another article from The Key looks at guidance on work experience and examples of provision in schools.

An article from SecEd explains that it is important to weave vocational delivery into the core curriculum. It adds:

Vocational qualifications can give real-world context to core curriculum subjects – for example personal money management can work alongside maths to demonstrate the importance of numeracy skills in action.

Reviewing the number of subjects pupils take

Ben suggested that schools should review the total number of subjects that most students would take in KS4. If this can be reduced it could enable schools to spend more time on each subject. This could enable practitioners to develop students' vocational skills in GCSE subjects even if they do not directly contribute to the qualification.

Extending KS4

Mark told us that running a 3-year KS4 may also enable schools to spend more time on developing vocational skills in GCSE subjects. Alternatively, schools may be able to offer additional optional vocational courses as there will be more teaching hours available.

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

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Curriculum resources: achieving value for money

Another article from The Key relays advice from two of our experts on how subject leaders can resource the curriculum more effectively. It covers:

  • Budget allocation
  • Efficient buying and use of resources
  • Support for new subject leaders

Keeping resourcing costs manageable

Identify the minimum requirements

Ben explained that there is a range of set-up costs and running costs associated with vocational subjects. He advised that schools should 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 they may not be necessary and there may be cheaper equivalents which would save the school money.

Deliver common sessions together

Gary explained that many vocational subjects, such as health and social care and engineering, may share common sessions covering the same content. These sessions could be taught at the same time, enabling the school to use staff time and resources more efficiently.

Visits by employers could also be organised so that these are offered in a common session.

Generate additional revenue

Ben told us that some schools experiment with using vocational courses to generate revenue, such as in hairdressing or catering. However, this may only produce a limited source of additional money.

Schools may also be able to secure donations or sponsorship from local businesses which have an interest in the vocational courses the school offers.

Share resources with other schools

Mark and Gary advised that if schools do not have the space or equipment to offer a qualification, they may want to consider federating with another school that has these facilities. Within federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs) it can be easier to share staff and specialist facilities.

Draw resources from businesses and FE colleges

Schools may want to consider setting up agreements with local FE colleges to access their resources

Schools may want to consider setting up agreements with local FE colleges to access their resources. Gary explained that, as FE colleges may be interested in the courses being offered to students pre-16, they are likely to be willing to offer support and may allow sessions to be delivered on their premises.

Schools may also be able to use specialist provision in private centres. For example, Mark explained that his school had previously used 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.

This article was written in anticipation of questions from members.

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