This paper explores young people's perceptions of vocational education and training (VET) in England. It draws on interview and focus-group data from a funded project. Parallel studies were carried out in The Netherlands, South Africa and England. This study reports on the English project. It found that serendipity, contingent events and influence of significant others are most influential in choice of vocational programme and that young peoples' understandings of possible career paths vary in sophistication, differentiated by age, programme level and subject area. Perceived attractiveness of VET was closely associated with societal perception of their programmes (which the young people considered to be negative). The paper considers the implications of these findings in the context of recent major policy initiatives in England. It concludes that, while some recent policy initiatives, such as the introduction of University Technical Colleges may be successful in raising the esteem of some forms of elite and specialized VET, broad vocational programmes at lower levels, and short courses associated with 'employability' and 're-engagement', will continue to be held in lower esteem and to confer little educational advantage on those young people, largely drawn from working-class backgrounds, who pursue them.