Vocational training is a type of education that allows students to prepare for a particular trade or craft through hands-on, practical experience. Where academic study generally involves exploring theory and abstract conceptual knowledge, vocational training positions the student in the workplace under the supervision of experienced practitioners. Apprenticeships are an example of vocational training, mixing a minimum of 30 hours' paid work a week with study towards a vocational qualification.
Vocational training is available across a wide range of subjects and industries, from engineering, construction and manufacturing to IT and communications, creative and digital media, health and social care, and more. Vocational training can be taken at the secondary, post-secondary and further education levels.
The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which contains vocational or work-related qualifications recognised in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, defines several levels of vocational training, from entry level to level eight – but the focus is generally on levels two and three, which are pitched at GCSE A*-C level and A-Level respectively.** UPDATE: the Qualifications and Credit Framework was withdrawn and the QCF Unit Bank closed on 30 September 2015. On 1 October 2015, a new Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) for all Ofqual-regulated qualifications was introduced, supported by level descriptors for Entry 1 to Level 8 qualifications, covering the categories of knowledge and skills.
Vocational training is great for those who feel they learn best by 'doing' rather than studying, and vocational qualifications allow a degree of flexibility meaning you can fit your work and study around other commitments. Trainees' job prospects are vastly improved by the fact that they have undertaken work relevant to the industry in which they hope to pursue a career, and have, in the process, obtained the most up-to-date skills for it.
Apprenticeships are particularly attractive because you earn a wage as you train, and, depending on your age and circumstances, may receive help towards the cost of your training from the government.
What Vocational Qualifications Are There?
There's a wide range of different courses on offer and many types of qualifications to be attained, from entry level to advanced. They are a good option for students who have a clear idea of what type of career or trade they would like to work in.
Vocational qualifications can be studied from the age of 14 (key stage 4). Those qualifications taken from ages 14-16 are called Technical Awards and up to three of them can count towards the new Progress 8 and Attainment 8 indicators being introduced by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2016. Subjects covered include: Art & Design, Graphic Design, Accounting & Finance, Business, Child Care, Construction, Engineering, Hair & Beauty, Health & Social Care, Hospitality, ICT, Media, Music & Performing Arts, Retailing, Science, Sport, Travel & Tourism.
From ages 16 to 19 the vocational qualifications are called Applied General or Tech-levels and the choice expands a great deal. Additional subjects to those in the list above include: Agriculture (plus animal and countryside management), Veterinary Nursing, Floristry, Forestry, Horticulture, Sound Engineering, Photography, Law & Legal Services, Medical Administration, Child Play and Learning, Joinery, Bricklaying, Electrical Installation, Gas Utilisation, Heating & Ventilation, Refrigeration, Painting & Decoration, Plastering, Plumbing, Carpentry, Tiling, Stone Masonry, Welding and Metalwork, IT, and all the various specialisations within engineering (e.g. aeronautical, automotive, mechanical etc.)
Two new vocational qualifications for under 20s
TechBac - a qualification for 14-19 year olds wanting to go the vocational route, it has been designed by City & Guilds to give students technical and practical skills that will ease them into an apprenticeship or job. Created in partnership with industry leaders, it is expected that there will be more than 80 of these qualifications available from September 2016 (subject to approval by the DfE).
Cambridge Technical - developed with input from universities, companies and industry experts subjects covered include: art and design, business, digital media, engineering, health and social care, IT, performing arts, science, and sport and physical activity.
The main types of Vocational Qualification
Business and Technology Education Council qualifications (BTECs) have been around for over 30 years with options covering levels from below GCSE to those equal to a degree. There are over 2,000 BTEC qualifications across 16 sectors. There are three levels of BTECs:
- BTEC Firsts: available from entry level to level 2 (similar standard to GCSEs). These offer an introduction to work in a vocational sector and are usually studied alongside academic qualifications like GCSEs
- BTEC Nationals: available from level 3 (similar standard to A levels). Many of these are well regarded by universities, further education colleges, and employers.
- BTEC Apprenticeships: available at levels 2 to 5 across more than 25 sectors.
The most popular type of award by number of learners, National Vocational Qualifications are based on set national occupational standards for each career sector. The standards are lists of skills and knowledge that employers stipulate are needed to be able to work in a certain sector. The Scottish equivalent is called the SVQ. Usually the student will get the knowledge and skills required for an NVQ by being trained while working, so they are good for people who want to combine working and learning. They are available from Level 1 to Level 8. Most often studied for part-time, they can be taken as a stand-alone qualification or as part of an apprenticeship. There is also an IVQ, International Vocational Qualification, which is designed specifically for the international marketplace. There are two types - Craft and Technician - and they are available at three levels - Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma.
OCR Cambridge Nationals
Cambridge Nationals have been around since 2012 and are designed for students aged 14-16. They are linked to different industries, and geared to the requirements of each career sector. They take the same amount of time as GCSEs.
HNC - Higher National Certificate
An HNC takes one year to complete (two if part-time) and is considered equivalent to completing the first year of an undergraduate degree course. These courses are vocationally focused and therefore the advantage of doing them is that they can lead straight on to a career or be used as a stepping point onto a degree.
HND - Higher National Diploma
The aim of diplomas is to give students practical training and work experience while learning. An HND is considered to be roughly equivalent to the second year of a university degree and many people who complete a HND go on to complete a university degree, bypassing the first two years at university. It is usually geared towards more vocational subjects and students studying for a HND can usually expect a more workplace-based style of learning. It takes two years to complete, unless you have completed a HNC, in which case the HND takes only one year.
Vocational courses designed and delivered in partnership with employers, they are offered by universities in partnership with Higher Education colleges and Further Education colleges. The degrees are mainly targeted at people already in work and wanting to progress their career, those who would like to make a career change and those who have completed level 3 qualifications and want to study further.
Some Other Awarding Bodies
The awarding organisation of the Construction Industry Training Board - so these qualifications are focused around building and utilities engineering skills.
EAL is part of Semta - the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing and Technologies Alliance - which is a not-for-profit organisation responsible for engineering skills for the future of the UK's most advanced industrial sectors.
These are nationally recognised (by regulators in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) qualifications and awards, including those for distance learning courses. NCFE-accredited courses run from from Entry Level up to Level 4 according to their degree of difficulty. They also develop and manage the V Cert technical qualification for the 14-16 year group, as well as their own NVQs, Functional Skills, Apprenticeships and Traineeships.