Education, Vocational


Education, Vocational, types of education that have a specific relation to working life. Vocational education is closely related to, but not identical with, the concept of training (or vocational training), which tends to focus on learning specific skills that are required in particular workplaces. Vocational education is, therefore, clearly distinguishable from academic (that is, general or liberal) education, which is concerned with the intellectual and moral development of individuals and has traditionally been associated with access to a variety of knowledge-based disciplines.

Vocational programmes for students completing compulsory education in England can be divided into two kinds—those that are work-based with varying degrees of off-the-job teaching (now known as modern apprenticeships) and full-time programmes mostly in colleges of further education that are oriented to broad occupational fields such as engineering and business administration. Provision for vocational education in Scotland is through national and higher national qualifications based in colleges, with relatively few following a work-based route. Since 1998 Scotland has, at least in terms of qualifications, gained a fully unified system that does not, in theory, distinguish between academic and vocational learning. What characterizes all countries, particularly those that make up the United Kingdom, is the assumption that vocational programmes are more appropriate for those with lower levels of attainment in general education.

The professional/vocational distinction also distinguishes forms of higher education such as engineering, accountancy, and pharmacy from the various alternatives to academic or general education for which a student can opt at the end of compulsory schooling.


Vocational education differs in both status and meaning according to the national tradition of which it is a part. Whereas in all countries of continental Europe vocational education includes substantial elements of continuing general education, it is only those countries following the German tradition that base it firmly on apprenticeship (or what is referred to in Germany as the “dual system”).

Conversely, British vocational programmes are usually followed only by those with low prior achievements in general education. Unlike in continental European countries, students choosing vocational programmes are frequently assumed to lack both the ability and the motivation to continue with their general education. There are significant differences in the approaches to the vocational education of the different countries within the United Kingdom, and the tendencies referred to are far more marked in England and Wales than in Scotland. Provision of vocational education in Scotland has, since the early 1980s, been made through qualifications such as the Scottish National Certificate, which includes vocational and general education modules. With the “Higher Still” reform programme, introduced in 1998, Scotland has one of the few genuinely unified systems of general and vocational education.


Despite wide differences between countries in different parts of the world and their different histories, a number of trends in vocational education can be identified that are common in varying degrees, at least to the industrialized countries. These trends are a direct reflection of global changes in national economies and the organization of work, as well as the increasing involvement in the vocational education of international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union. Common trends include a shift from part-time and work-based programmes of the apprenticeship type to full-time vocational education provision and the breakdown of the traditional distinctions between programmes for craftsmen and technicians and those for professionals; vocational and academic programmes are increasingly located within a single hierarchy of levels.

Other common trends are the move from programmes linked to specific skills such as painting and plastering to those encouraging the development of more generic skills that are not specific to particular fields or occupations. These are known as core or key skills and, in some countries, as key qualifications and refer to such complex competencies as problem-solving and diagnosis.

As part of an effort to achieve greater accountability of public expenditure, there has also been a shift in the form of vocational education programmes. Traditionally they have been described in terms of syllabuses laid down by the examining boards, which act as guides to teachers in their selection of content; syllabuses are the basis on which examinations are set. At least in England, vocational qualifications are derived from national occupational standards developed by sectoral organizations dominated by employer representatives. Standards describe what the student or trainee “can do” not “what they know”. Two final trends are also important; first, there is the demise of a wide variety of engineering and metalworking programmes and their replacement by courses based on electronics and information technology on the one hand, and a variety of service skills—leisure and tourism, retail and customer care, business administration, and health and social care—on the other; secondly, vocational education programmes are including a far wider range of people than in the past. A very small number of young people now obtain employment without any post-compulsory education or training at all. This is in stark contrast to the situation in the mid-1970s when over half of each cohort of school leavers went directly into unskilled employment with no training and no qualifications. However, the new labour market situation is complex, especially for young people; there are more jobs that make higher skill demands, but there are also more new jobs being created that involve very limited skill demands. An additional change is that many more women are now taking vocational courses than in the past. Again this reflects not so much a change of attitude on the part of employers and admission tutors for higher-level courses as the fact that with the expansion of keyboard-based and service occupations, employment is becoming more “gender-neutral”.


In the early years of the 21st century, virtually every country faces a common set of dilemmas concerning the content, structure, and funding of its provision of vocational education. First, increased student participation after the compulsory phase of education is creating pressures on funding and control and raises the question of how the costs of vocational education should be balanced between the state, the employer, the trade union or employee organization, and the individual. Secondly, as the speed with which knowledge and skills become redundant increases, the question of the form that vocational education needs to take, to ensure that individuals continue to educate themselves throughout their working lives, becomes increasingly urgent; this need to encourage lifelong learning raises questions about the role of vocational qualifications, especially when they are less and less a guarantee of employment. Thirdly, it seems likely that future societies will not be able to achieve full employment in the traditional sense; it follows that the role of vocational education for the increasingly vulnerable “bottom quartile” of the academic ability range becomes increasingly important, as does the availability of opportunities for transfer between vocational and general education. Fourthly, new approaches to assessment that will stimulate the development of broader-based capabilities as well as technical competencies are necessary; it will no longer be adequate just to test specific workplace skills or the ability of students to memorize for an examination.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, is the question of the future of the academic/vocational divide and whether the currently divided systems should be replaced by unified or integrated systems, and, if so, what form they should take. The issue of academic/vocational divisions underlies the emergence of dual-purpose programmes, such as the Advanced Certificate in Vocational Education in England and Wales and the Baccalauréat Professionnel in France. These programmes in England and other European countries are based on 15 to 30 broad occupational areas or “lines”. Countries vary in the extent to which their vocational programmes involve a continuing commitment to general education. Once of the aims of these programmes is to provide progression routes to new types of higher education (foundation degrees in England) some of which are offered in colleges of further education. (See also Education, Secondary.)

A major dilemma continues to be the commitment of employers. In countries such as England, many employers rely on general rather than vocational qualifications in their recruitment practices. Furthermore, there remain many employers, especially those in small businesses for whom the development of their human resources is subservient to the goals of achieving short-term profits, with low-waged employees with low or minimum qualifications. In the end, the problem of vocational education is primarily a problem of investment, work organization, and product markets. Only if these factors change will the demand for quality in vocational education increase.