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Vocational education and training

Improving technical and vocational skills is key to improving productivity and social mobility in Britain. Relatively high numbers of people with poor basic skills and low numbers with high-level vocational skills are long-standing national challenges.

To meet them we need to ask what the individual and social returns to further vocational and technical education are. What influences the quality of provision? What are the factors that determine whether young people and those in work study and train beyond school? Our work here has been facilitated by Department for Education funding of the Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Work on vocational education traces the trajectories of young people after leaving school and their later consequences. Few young people have a clear idea of the different labour market and wage returns to these educational choices, but we found that making available even small amounts of careers advice and information on the labour market consequences of different education routes helps change teenagers' aspirations.

Once choices have been made, for those pursuing lower level vocational qualifications post-16 we find that less than half progress any higher up the educational ladder. Whether or not these learners are being well served by the education system needs further investigation, in particular given their disadvantaged profile. Making an informed choice is particularly difficult at this level because of the huge range of options offered by a multiplicity of public and private education providers with little clarity on their relative merits: our research has for the first time attempted to map the options available and the skills they provide.

For those that can get on them, apprenticeships offer a better medium-term return on earnings than other vocational routes. Nevertheless, the returns are much higher for men than for women, reflecting the fact that men tend to specialise in areas such as engineering that have much higher returns. Reversing such tendencies to self-select into different subjects appears to be difficult: for example reforming the curriculum to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school does not necessarily encourage more women to pursue these subjects in higher education.

What influences students' performance? Just missing out on a grade C (or 4) in GCSE English, strongly decreases the probability of advancing further and may even lead to students dropping out of education altogether and being "not in education, employment or training" (NEET).

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