From the TUC

Vocational education is letting young women down

11 Apr 2016, by in Equality

Vocational education is confused, and does not guarantee routes into good quality employment

On the 8 April the Lords Social Mobility Select Committee published a report entitled “Overlooked and left behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people”. Damning and hard hitting, it concluded that the majority of young people are not being properly invested in, with long term economic and social consequences.

It found that the distinction between academic and vocational routes is stark. Although there has been a focus on apprenticeships (something the TUC strongly supports), there are too few young people given this opportunity. Instead they have to navigate a complicated system of qualifications, and are often left without the skills that will provide opportunities for themselves and which are necessary for the economy to grow.

“The current system for young people who do not follow an academic route is complex and incoherent, with confusing incentives for young people and employers. Careers advice and education are being delivered in a way which means that too many young people simply drift into further studies or their first job, which often has no real prospect of progression.”

Further education has seen some of the harshest cuts since 2010, and it seems obvious that greater investment is needed in further education and skills.

Vocational education especially disadvantages young women

A key conclusion of the report was:

“There is a culture of inequality between vocational and academic routes to work”

Our analysis also demonstrates that there is greater inequality amongst men and women with vocational qualifications.

We found that the pay gap for this age group overall was a staggering 8.5 per cent. As a young woman myself I find it astonishing that in 2016 young women still fare worse in the labour market.

Yet when we looked at individual qualifications the results were even more staggering. For those with NVQ level 3 qualifications there was a 25 per cent pay gap, for those who had completed a ‘trade apprenticeship’ it was 22 per cent, for those with NVQ level 2s it was 17 per cent. When we aggregated all vocational qualifications that were of a higher than GCSE level, the pay gap was 15 per cent. Young women with these qualifications earn £8.50 per hour, young men £10.00.

The inequality between vocational and academic qualifications means that those that pursue these tend to attract higher pay. Yet interestingly women benefit disproportionately from following the academic route after GCSEs, with a pay bonus of £3 an hour, compared to £2.80 for men. This means that whilst a pay gap still exists, at 11 per cent it is substantially less than amongst those young people with vocational qualifications.


When we looked into the reasons behind this, an obvious place to start seemed to be Further Education “data library”. We found extreme gendering of vocational qualifications. For example, looking at QCF qualifications, in 2014/15 women made up 65.3% of those achieving a qualification in Health, Public Services and Care, but only 2.5% of those gaining Construction qualifications. This appears to overwhelmingly support the idea that young women earn less than their male peers because they work predominantly in sectors where pay is poorer.


What does the TUC think?

These findings are not surprising, and chime strongly with findings from other groups such as the Young Women’s Trust. The TUC has previously calculated that it will take 50 years to close the gender pay gap. If we want pay parity to ever be achieved, we need to tackle gendered occupational segregation, as well as other disadvantages that women experience in the labour market.


Hence, whilst it is important to improve vocational education, there is undoubtedly a particular problem when it comes to young women.  The TUC calls on schools to challenge traditional gender roles at an early stage and for better careers education and guidance for young people, so that they are made more aware of the returns from different qualifications and careers. We also recommend mentoring programmes for women in industries in which they are underrepresented.

2 Responses to Vocational education is letting young women down

  1. tom schuller
    Apr 14th 2016, 5:43 pm

    Very interesting and important analysis.
    I’d like to blog on it as it’s solid evidence on how women work below their level of competence (see website below), but I’m trying to reconcile your comment “interestingly women benefit disproportionately from following the academic route after GCSEs, with a pay bonus of £3 an hour, compared to £2.80 for men” , with the table, which doesn’t seem to show that revese gap. Can you pl clarify?

  2. Florence Bates

    Florence Bates
    Apr 15th 2016, 9:32 am

    Hi Tom, thank you for your comment and sorry for being unclear! What I meant was that if men take the vocational route they can expect a gross hourly wage of £10, whereas if they take the academic route they can expect £12.80 (hence a “pay bonus” of £2.80). Conversely women who take the vocational route can expect £8.50, whereas if they take the academic option they earn £11.50 (hence a “pay bonus” of £3.00). I was trying to say that women benefit disproportionately from choosing academic rather than vocational qualifications, not because academic qualifications reward them more than they reward men, but because the vocational route often offers little to women. As I discussed later I think a key reason for this is the extreme gendering of vocational qualifications. I hope that makes it clearer!