Persistently high youth unemployment and changes in the labour market mean that the UK needs better, clearer school-to-work pathways for our young people.

Any reform of education for 14–19-year-olds must focus on improving vocational and technical pathways, in light of the evidence that the countries that have succeeded in keeping youth unemployment low have been those which have invested in developing a quality vocational education and training (VET) system.

We know that high, entrenched youth unemployment and a high proportion of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) are not evident in those countries which have stronger, clearer systems for making the transition from education to work. In particular, countries that have well-organised and highly regarded vocational systems help their young people to achieve these positive transitions more readily, and so their youth employment rates have been much more positive and more resilient during the recent recession.

However, rather than simply lifting policy from Germany or bemoaning the futility of even trying, we should try to learn lessons from countries – such as Australia and the Netherlands, which this paper focusses on – that have succeeded in developing stronger vocational education systems within similar economies to our own.

This paper presents case studies of VET systems in Australia and the Netherlands, looking at institutions, school systems, qualifications and vocational options for young people.

From these case studies we have derived three lessons to guide reforms in England:

  • Reforms in England have tended to focus excessively on changing the structure and content of qualifications, rather than on the wider system – this should not be the future starting point.
  • We need to ensure that our VET system is supported by strong, simple and stable institutions that bring together employers, providers and the state.
  • Apprenticeships are important, but high-quality pathways for all young people will require stronger provision in schools and colleges as well.

IPPR's work on 14–19 education is continuing, and will build on this initial case for change.