What shall we do about vocational education?

Tuesday 31st January 2012

Tony Breslin Speaking

Education policy is full of contradictions and mixed messages and today’s announcement on the declassification of vocational qualifications, in terms of their status in school league tables, is a case in point. For the past 35 years – since James Callaghan’s acclaimed Ruskin College speech calling for a great debate on what we want from our education system – every Secretary of State has spoken at length on the importance of vocational education, about bridging the academic-vocational divide and about the need to provide the right kind of labour supply to our once great engineering and manufacturing sector.

 
The practical moves have, though, been much more tentative: GNVQs appeared to flourish briefly post 16-but never became firmly established at Key Stage 4; Key Skills never achieved the foothold in our schools that they did secure in our more vocationally inclined FE colleges; in the same era the notion of “disapplication” briefly allowed students who struggled with the full National Curriculum at Key Stage 4 to drop particular subjects in favour of a programme of “work related learning”; Ruth Kelly rejected Tomlinson’s key recommendation that the Diploma model should be applied to both academic and vocational programmes, although there was a retrospective attempt to do just this during Ed Ball’s tenure in Great Smith Street; Michael Gove, supported by his traditionally-inclined school secretary Nick Gibb, has been clearer, appearing to be much less fond of vocational ‘relevance’ and much more fond of academic ‘rigour’, albeit while his colleagues at BIS have been calling for a resurgence in the apprenticeship system, something that the unintended consequences of tuition fees might help deliver.
 
The flirtation with disapplication let the vocational cat out of the academic bag: disengaged, unmotivated, less successful, or maybe just less able? Step out of the mainstream and into the also-ran world of alternative curricula. Throwing the naughty boys (for it were usually they) a car engine was never the way to boost the status of vocational learning or that of the careers in engineering and manufacturing that such an education might lead to. Thus, vocational programmes have too often come to represent a curriculum that learners fall onto rather than one that they might aspire to; of course, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: able students, and schools that want to serve able students, shy away from vocational learning while schools in more challenging circumstances and more disadvantaged intakes reach for this ‘relevant’ curricula because it suits ‘their kids’ – and with points in the league table, who might blame these schools for grasping at the appearance of parity and a measure of educational success? This is hardly a recipe for attracting our most able into engineering or design or manufacturing. Rather than closing it, phoney parity emphasises the gap between the academic and the vocational domains: a failure for all.
 
The problem is that, taken alone, today’s action further depletes the status of vocational learning without any attempt to meet the real challenge: the need to transform it. The news on the abolition of the parity that never was should have been coupled with a cross-party commitment to deliver the best vocational education in Europe within a decade, not as an alternative to the academic route but as a part of every child’s education. Three steps would be helpful in this respect.
 
First, all secondary schools should be inspected not just on curriculum rigour (which the promotion of the E-bac seeks to demonstrate success in, albeit clumsily and unimaginatively) but on curricular breadth. Following the Secretary of State’s desire to ‘free teachers from prescription’, schools might be encouraged to be creative in how they demonstrate this but demonstrate it, they must. Thus, any school that does not open up opportunities that ensure an entitlement for every student to participate in high quality work related learning (and, for that matter, learning programmes focused on the development of creativity, curiosity and effective citizenship) should not be able to achieve ‘outstanding’ status because of the narrowness of its curricular offer. A programme composed of ten GCSEs is not a broad one – I write as a former GCSE Chief Examiner – but a curriculum that adds to the E-bac an excellent vocational component, a community service element, good quality citizenship education and a real exposure to sport, the arts and creativity is.
 
Second, and at the same time, we should re-conceptualise vocational education as professional and vocational education; this is the ‘nudge’ to the middle classes that such learning is something for their children to seek out rather than to walk away from. Degrees in Law, Medicine, Marketing and Finance are profoundly vocational in nature; how about opening up learning in these spheres in our schools – taster programmes, summer internships, curriculum modules, delivered in partnership with the professions concerned? Anybody who wants to take a look at examples of such work would be wise to look at the Citizenship Foundation’s excellent and long-standing Lawyers in Schools programme and their mock trial competitions – for they constitute brilliant vocational education, even if their aim is to educate about the law more broadly.
 
Third, let’s do all of this while thinking not about parity but about complementariness. It should never have mattered whether a course in hairdressing or bricklaying or business studies is equal in status to one in geography or history or French. It does matter that every young person experiences a curriculum shot through with a strong dose of high quality professional and vocational education, whether the outcome is a career in carpentry or surveying, medicine or law.
 
Today feels like another assault on vocational learning; it doesn’t need to be – let’s make it the start of something new.
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