It might surprise some regular readers to see me writing a post under the title ‘the importance of vocational education’, not least because I have used this blog to advance on numerous occasions an argument against vocational education in schools. My argument has consistently been that all children, regardless of their social background or future aspirations, ought to be entitled to a broad, liberal, academic secondary education. Yet it is also true that children in the future need to have jobs, and they need to be prepared for their jobs. No one today can enjoy a life of pure philosophical contemplation: even academics have to pay their way by teaching. At some point, therefore, we need to start getting people ready for jobs.
Let’s just recap quickly the arguments against vocational education in secondary schools. My case here is based on a ground-up argument about entitlement. All children, I think, should have knowledge of the physical and human world in which we live. The celestial dance of the planets, the wonder of photosynthesis, the causes, course and consequence of the Industrial Revolution: these are, for me, things that all people should know something about. It is the academic disciplines that provide us with this knowledge: they are not fixed and fossilised entities, but evolving bodies and forms of knowledge which entail on-going debate. They are, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, ‘continuities of conflict’, traditions that collectively constitute the great conversations of mankind. In the past, these wonders of human endeavour – the academic disciplines – have been open to only a relatively small number of people, but one of the wonders of our modern society is that it is now possible for this once-elite knowledge to be the inheritance of all: that is something worth fighting for.
And that, in a nutshell, is the basis of my philosophy of schooling. Shakespeare and photosynthesis are as much the entitlement of hairdressers and train drivers as they are of lawyers and marketing consultants.
Yet there comes a time when, ultimately, people have to put aside their academic studies, and train to become hairdressers, train drivers, lawyers and marketing consultants. We can have a debate about when exactly this happens: my argument would be that 13 or 14 is too early, but that 15 or 16 is not an unreasonable age at which to begin thinking about one’s future career. In part this is based on a rather generalised notion of maturity (it is between the ages of 16 and 18 that we normally begin treating people as independent adults) but my case here is as much about giving people enough time to study the academic disciplines without having to worry about career training: four or five years of a broad academic education under the tuition of a subject specialist is, I think, something we as a society can afford to offer to our children.
But what then? At the age of 16 children – or should we now call them adults? – have to begin making choices about their future. For some this will mean a continuation of academic study through A-Levels and university. I do not think we need 50% of people doing this, and I accept that social class still plays a powerful role in determining who gets to university, but it is also perfectly clear that not all people can go on to university. Our efforts in school should be on ensuring that those who, through their hard work and (perhaps) innate intelligence, are in a position to choose this route can do so, regardless of their socio-economic background. To be frank, this is the group of people I am least worried about. Yes, I know that graduate employment is very much at the mercy of the economic tides, but those who continue with academic study after the age of 16 have five years or so in which to gain work experience, make contacts and research possible career avenues.
The group that worries me are those who do not go on to A-Levels and university. These are the young people whom I think we have most frequently failed as a society. We do not speak very much about them, nor do we provide much public money for their continuing education. Occasionally we hear about the number of ‘NEETs’ in society, but then comes the next row over university tuition fees and all is once again forgotten. Yet I remain convinced that 16-21 education for those who stop academic study at age 16 is the least well supported and funded component of our education system. Attempts to fix this in the past have, I think, been flawed by attempts to introduce qualifications that ‘compete’ or ‘have parity’ with academic qualifications in schools. The sooner we can ditch this notion of ‘equivalence’ the better. As I have said, let’s not deprive children of their academic education: they will work long enough in their lives without having to worry about making such choices when they are around 13 years old.
So what should we be doing if not this?
We need to have a multi-pronged approach, and schools do have a role to play here.
(1) We need to push apprenticeships harder and harder, giving more incentives to employers who create such courses, and marketing them hard to children aged 15 and 16. We have got much better at this in recent years, and we need to keep at it.
(2) We need to fund Further Education colleges better. Unless a secondary school is very large, it usually does not have the size needed to offer quality provision in employment training. Further Education colleges are larger, serve bigger geographical areas, and have the kinds of specialism that are needed. We need to pay staff in those colleges more, and we need to do all we can to make sure that those colleges are offering rigorous courses, and again I think there have been some positive steps here in recent years. Treating these institutions more like Polytechnics, offering a 16-21 curriculum, would seem a sensible direction, and I would be open to the idea of funding them through the student loan system.
(3) Schools need to be more proactive in getting pupils onto these courses. Do not get me wrong: I know there are schools which are exceptionally good at doing this. But there are many schools for whom this is simply not a priority. Careers advice in schools has rightly been lampooned, but the fact that it has been poor in the past in some places does not mean that it is not important. Too much of the careers advice I have seen has consisted of ‘showing what the options are’ rather than intensively coaching pupils to apply for those opportunities.
I shall defend to my dying day the idea that secondary school should be about providing pupils of all backgrounds and abilities a grounding in the academic disciplines and the arts: this is everyone’s cultural inheritance, and not the preserve of the fortunate few. But those of us who hold this line cannot occupy the moral high ground if we do not at the same time recognise that it is our duty to ensure that those same children – once they have left our care – go on to receive the kind of training needed to start on their careers. It would be good to hear more about how schools that believe in a liberal education for all are planning to achieve that.