This is the second in a series of three posts in which I am setting out in more detail my views on academic and vocational subjects on the secondary school curriculum. In my previous post I defended the academic disciplines as the obvious choice for an institution that seeks to educate children about the world beyond their everyday experiences. In this post, I want to argue that vocational subjects have no place on the secondary school curriculum. It is not that I think vocational subjects are bad or damaging – quite the opposite, in fact – but rather than I think secondary school is not the right time for these.
I should point out that I am not talking here about whether children ought to be doing ‘practical’ subjects, nor am I talking about whether they should learn ‘life skills’ at school. The word ‘practical’ is unhelpful because whether or not something is ‘practical’ depends on what you want to do: imaginary numbers are a very practical way of solving all sorts of problems in engineering, for example. When people speak of ‘practical subjects’, what they normally mean is ‘non-academic’, and I think this is a poor way of defining a set of qualifications.
As for life skills, I have a little more sympathy for the argument. These tend to include things like cooking, sewing, putting up shelves, looking after babies and managing one’s finances. My starting point on this is that it is the responsibility of parents to teach life skills. I do not have a problem with a small amount of time being given to these things in primary and secondary school, not least because I know that there are some children who do not get taught these things at home. In general, however, the very fact that these things are life skills means that they are likely to crop up in everyday life. It is not the place of school, I think, to replicate everyday experience; instead, it is to take children beyond their everyday experiences. Schools might provide a basic safety net, but they should not see teaching life skills as their raison d’être.
So if we do not mean ‘practical’ or ‘life skills’, then what do we mean by ‘vocational’. The OED provides
Of, pertaining or relating to, a vocation or occupation.
I am going to work with this and define a vocational subject as
A subject that exists with the primary purpose of giving pupils the knowledge and skills they need for employment in a particular occupation or sector.
Following my recent posts on the school curriculum, I had a number of arguments levelled at me that made a case for the place of vocational subjects on the secondary school curriculum. I have structured the rest of this post by highlighting those arguments in bold, before setting out in my attempt to refute them.
Vocational subjects give children a chance to succeed in something
At heart, I think we need to fundamentally challenge the widely accepted notion that ‘vocational’ = ‘non-academic’. I know that some would already argue that both vocational and academic subjects have equal value, but, in practice, this is not how it plays out in schools. A child who has been successful at academic subjects lower down the school would generally be encouraged to continue in academic study, while those who have not been successful tend to have vocational subjects offered as alternatives. To argue that children should drop academic subjects in school so that they can succeed in vocational subjects is to admit that, in practice, ‘vocational’ = ‘non-academic’. I do very much sympathise with the argument that children should not where possible be set up to fail, but I would argue that the vast majority of children are capable of learning the academic disciplines. Vocational subjects deserve more than being associated, whether implicitly or explicitly, with academic failure.
Children ought to have the choice of dropping academic subjects
I must admit I find it fascinating that a central pillar of neo-liberal philosophy – choice – is deployed by those who argue against a compulsory academic education up to the age of 16: it is perhaps a classic left-wing divide between libertarianism and paternalism. I am in no doubt that, if offered a choice between Chaucer and designing computer games, then the vast majority of children would go for the latter. But this does not necessarily mean that this is a good thing: there are plenty of things that children would choose to do that might not be in their best interests.
There are also major issues with the idea that teachers are well-placed to support children in making ‘good choices’. A teacher of psychology – whose job depends on gaining enough pupils to form a GCSE set or two – is unlikely to offer disinterested advice. Similarly, a Head of Geography who wants to ensure that her department’s grades look good faces a moral dilemma when approached by a pupil who is unlikely to attain or achieve well in the subject. SLT discussions about ‘pathways’ might well be held in the best interests of the pupils, but it is a brave Headteacher that encourages pupils to take academic subjects when a vocational option might result in a better league table position.
Choice sounds like a noble idea, but it has pernicious side effects that, in the past, have seen middle-class children continue to get an academic education up to the age of 16, while children from less affluent backgrounds get moved into vocational subjects, where ‘vocational’ is usually a synonym for ‘non-academic’. I generalise, of course, but our current system of choice at 13/14 perpetuates the class divide in society.
Vocational subjects are intrinsically as valuable as academic subjects
This is difficult because whether or not something is valuable depends on what you are trying to achieve with your institution. If one of your aims is to help children understand the world beyond their immediate experiences then, as I have argued, you cannot beat the academic disciplines. If one of your aims for school is that it prepares pupils to work in a particular employment sector, then yes, vocational subjects would be more valuable than academic subjects. In discussing ‘value’ we are actually discussing the ‘aims’ of schooling. In order to take this challenge head on, therefore, it is necessary for me to challenge the idea that schools are a place where pupils ought to be prepared for work in an employment sector, which leads us to the next argument.
Vocational subjects help pupils learn the knowledge and skills they need for employment
I should note from the outset that this statement is, almost by definition, true. A vocational subject aims to prepare children to work in an employment sector, and as such it would not be working very well if it were not doing that. My question is whether or not school is the right time to be doing this. Three arguments support my position here.
First, I see it as the primary responsibility of employers to be training people in how to do the jobs they want people to do. I am a big fan of apprenticeships and I would like to see employers taking more responsibility here, rather than complaining that schools aren’t preparing pupils well enough. There is no better organisation to train people in doing a particular job than a company that does that job. Given that an employer will also be able to make that training more specific to the precise work they want someone to do, there seems all the more reason to get employers playing the central role in vocational education.
Secondly, there are a large number of employment sectors (and thousands of types of job) that someone can do. Prospects.ac.uk reckons there are around 23 employment sectors, and those children who do vocational subjects post-14 (or post-13 in some schools) rarely take courses in more than one or two sectors. For vocational education to work in secondary schools, we have in practice to ask pupils to make a decision when they are aged between 12 and 14 as to which employment sector they are going to work in. We live in a society where people can expect to live into their 80s and work into their late 60s: we really do not need children choosing an employment sector when they are 13 (or even 12) years old. Let them be children for a bit longer please.
Thirdly, and continuing in a practical line, schools are generally too small to be able to offer vocational education in any more than a handful of vocational subjects: it would simply not be financially feasible to get the staff. FE colleges and universities, in comparison, can quite happily run courses in a wide range of sectors because they draw on students from a much wider area and (because those students are adults) it is easier for them to travel or leave their family home. Although some schools have excellent vocational facilities (I worked in one with a brilliant construction department) in general schools just cannot offer the same as a FE college or university.
I am going to return to these issues in my next post. For now, my challenge to this line of argument is ‘yes, vocational subjects do (or at least can) prepare pupils for employment, but why do that when they’re barely teenagers and when they can do it better, later’. This is all the more important an argument when the challenges of limited curriculum time make it difficult to blend academic disciplines, creative arts, life skills and vocational subjects in a way that does any of them justice.