Education: Give hairdressing & fish farms a chance

Posted on: 01 February 2012 by Alexander Hay

UK Vocational Education shouldn't be second best, but government plans to purge trade courses from league tables suggests otherwise

What awaits those children with little interest or ability in academic subjects? Image C/O spiraltri3e @ FLICKRUK Education is an oft-kicked football, launched at one goal, then another, before another two teams take to the field and start playing a different game altogether. This is a particularly British problem as education has always been an ideological means rather than a realistic end (for the pupil, at least).

For example, the first state schools echoed a belief that we needed a well-trained and morally educated workforce; the tripartite system set up after the war seemed mainly there to maintain class divisions and annoy people; comprehensives were designed with bland utopianism in mind, and were underpinned by middle class support from familes upset that Tarquin or Tabitha had failed the 11-plus.

We now have a system that combines all the worst elements of the above. Not all comprehensives were or are created equal - having parents rich enough to move into a good catchment area is the modern equivalent of passing the 11-plus.

Meanwhile, growing up in the inner city within staggering distance of the local school means you're getting a secondary modern experience whether you like it or not.

Unless you're gifted with abnormal persistence, luck or cunning, the odds are that where you go to school reflects where you're ending up, and with the factories mostly all closed now, it's stacking shelves in Poundland or nothing.

Underlying this is a profound snobbery which undermines any education that isn't academic in nature. (And in turn, denigrates any academic education that isn't expensive enough.) Again, we have a long history of this.

While the continent and America actively pursued technical education in the 19th century, the UK was at best lukewarm on the matter and remains so today. If the German tripartite system works two thirds of the time (apart from the dismal Hauptschules), it is because it has an excellent vocational training system, in addition to a strong academic pathway.

And Britain? Well, vocational qualifications continue to get treated like the ugly stepchild of our education system:

Courses in subjects such as horse care, customer service, nail technology and practical office skills will no longer be listed as “equivalent” to GCSEs under new plans.

The change is being made by the Department for Education as part of sweeping reforms designed to raise school standards and stop teachers pushing teenagers onto inappropriate qualifications.

Over the last decade, rising numbers of vocational courses have been accredited for inclusion in league tables amid claims they seen should be seen as equal value to academic subjects.

But a report last year by Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, claimed the system created “perverse incentives” for some schools...

In a sense, there is a point to the proposals, in that the vocational courses are seen as an easy way to push one's school up the league tables. For example, a BTEC in Fish Husbandry counts as two GCSEs. Likewise courses in hairdressing also count towards a school's GCSE yield.

But this ignores two problems. Firstly, there is the unseemly nature of school league tables in the first place - having them compete like they're selling tins of baked beans is simply the latest layer of destructive ideas slapped onto UK education.

But secondly, the coverage these courses receive again demonstrates prejudice against vocational training. It's almost as if the government can't quite pick what to get most upset at - the fact that they are being used to nobble the system or the fact that they are vocational, and so not 'serious' enough to be taken seriously.

Education secretary Michael Gove (privately educated and with an English degree from Oxford) inadvertently revealed what the 'reform' is really intending to do:

"For too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualifications are intrinsically the same. Young people have taken courses that have led nowhere."

In other words, Gove is supporting the notion of there being an educational hierarchy, where academic subjects take precedence.

Yet, rather than arguing that not all qualifications are the same, the real question he should be asking is how qualifications can be improved so they are equivalent in terms of both what is imparted and the level of educational rigour.

This will of course mean admitting that the current curriculum - aimed as it is at somewhat above average but otherwise rather mediocre middle class kids - isn't really helping anyone else. The courses that lead to 'nowhere' only do so because we have not and will not make a serious commitment to serious technical training.

Plus, while it sounds rather absurd on paper (or on screen), Fish Husbandry does actually sound like you can get a job out of it, while Horsecare - at the very least - sounds a lot more fun than Double Maths.

The question we need to ask is what education is for. As rising fees drive away students from universities, some other form of post-secondary training will be needed if we are to continue to compete with the rest of the world. We are in an absurd situation where children are forced to wear school uniform all day, but far less emphasis is placed on what they do once they finally burn that hideous polyester skirt or tie.

Perhaps we all need to pay a little more tax not just to fund good universities but also training for those who aren't academic, but who still have talent or ability. Yet this will involve challenging entrenched beliefs and acknowledging there is nothing 'inferior' in taking a course in plumbing, but that it and courses like it are still stigmatised by being 'common'.

But if surmounted, perhaps we can start developing an economy and a society that isn't so utterly dependent on finance and services. Perhaps then, we might even begin to ask a bigger question - whether our Victorian notions of schools, childhood, teachers and education itself need to be reformed too.

Image C/O spiraltri3e @ FLICKR

[SOURCES: The Telegraph & The Guardian]

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Alexander Hay

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