Teach knowledge, not work-life skills

For too long, vocational qualifications at schools have been used to lower the horizons of working-class kids.

Tom Finn-Kelcey

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Topics Politics

Recently, the UK Lib-Con coalition government took the decision to axe 3,100 vocational qualifications from school league tables. Its reasoning for this, underlined by Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education, was that these qualifications were not rigorous enough and were failing to lead young people into jobs. It has also been suggested that schools are offering these sub-standard qualifications to boost their position in league tables.

It is certainly a good thing that many of these qualifications have been downgraded, and it is a scandal that so many schools have encouraged students to take them. No matter how incentivised schools may have been to improve results, it is a sign of immense weakness and downright dereliction of educational duty on the part of school leaders that they put so many young people through such time- and talent-wasting courses. It is a further disgrace that the school standards watchdog, OFSTED, and successive governments, have encouraged this practice. The last Labour government should be particularly ashamed; for all its talk of equality, it was encouraging a policy that has had a particularly detrimental impact on working-class children.

There can be little doubt that schools have been increasingly pushing such courses. The fact is that the numbers of students taking vocational courses has exploded in recent years – from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010, according to the Department for Education. However, having previously worked in two schools that pursued this approach, I believe that government has got the right policy now, but for the wrong reasons. This is not about league tables but about low academic expectations of working-class children. There is now a strong societal assumption that certain social groups of children are just not ‘cut out’ for academic education, and are better off being ‘kept quiet’ doing something they ‘can do’, or ‘see the relevance’ of.

The problems with this approach are numerous. Firstly, and obviously, it is dangerously deterministic and flies in the face of the principle of building a society based on merit. Let’s be clear, there are a very small number of young people who are so poorly socialised or mentally disabled that a more practical and basic approach to their education is necessary. For this tiny minority, simply providing them the basic skills to survive in the adult world of work, as opposed to insisting on an academic education, is not only an appropriate response but also a thoroughly humane one. However, the numbers we are talking about really are absolutely tiny. For the overwhelming majority – 99 per cent of any age group – very high expectations and standards should be the norm.

The 14-year-old child who complains that he or she doesn’t see the relevance of history or science is crying out for inspiration and challenge from teachers. Unfortunately, the response is all too frequently to point that child towards a vocational qualification like Basic Office Skills. In such circumstances, the good teacher and school should challenge low expectations of children and their parents, and open their eyes to the possibilities for that child. Instead, the response too often is acquiescence to determinism and acceptance that academia is ‘not for the likes of me’.

Secondly, not only does the fashion for vocational qualifications underestimate whole groups of children, but it is misguided in the sense that these qualifications rarely, if ever, lead young people into the kinds of careers that were intended. Professor Wolf’s report on vocational education states: ‘The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour-market value.’ Professor Wolf goes as far as to say that we have lied to children about the usefulness of these qualifications; such brutal honesty about this makes a refreshing change.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the current approach demonstrates a total failure to grasp the importance of what education is supposed to be for. The Wolf Report, though excellent and thorough in many ways, never seriously challenges the miserably limited belief that school is just about preparing children for the labour market. The entire debate within government, and increasingly within schools, around the issue of state education in the UK has become one of base instrumentalism: what kind of job will this qualification get me? This seems to be the prism through which all qualifications and school education are now viewed. Something important and quite precious has been lost in this approach.

What is missing is a robust defence of why all young people should have an academic education: because a full and thorough understanding of the world in which we live – including the achievements of humanity, past and present, in the sciences, humanities, literature and all the rest – is utterly inspiring, astonishing and life-altering. It encourages the pushing of boundaries and the flourishing of the individual and is the surest route to true freedom for that individual. It should be our legacy as human beings, and something defended to the hilt.

This, not the job market, should be the starting point. Narrow vocationalism may be an understandable, if shortsighted, approach from an employers’ perspective. But what should concern all of us so deeply should be the extent to which politicians – and even many teachers – buy into this dangerously warped and limited view of education. JS Mill famously said ‘better Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied’, and never were these words more relevant than as a critique of much of education in Britain today.

The government’s downgrading of the status of many of these poor-quality – in many cases, useless – qualifications is clearly a step forward for education and for the children of the UK. But the bigger problem of instrumentalism of education remains to be tackled. There has never been a more pressing need for everyone who loves academia, and understands its potential for human flourishing, to go out to make the case for inspiring, challenging academic education in the public arena.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics, PSHE and citizenship at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School.

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