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‘We’re preparing our army for the last war’: why the academic-vocational divide must fall

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 November 2017

IOE Events. 
Vocational education suffers from its second class status – variously seen as a ‘consolation prize’ and ‘for other people’s children’. It deserves better – for its own sake and for the sake of social justice, but also, as the speakers at the IOE’s second ‘What if…’ event this week noted, for the sake of our economy.
As Tony Little, chief academic officer of GEMS Education and former headmaster of Eton, remarked, ‘we’re preparing our army for the last war’; the economy and labour market are changing fast, and young people need a broader education. As evidenced by November’s Budget and Industrial Strategy, the government itself seems to have woken from its slumber on skills, and vocational education’s time has come (again). We have been here before, of course, so how can things be different this time around?
Also responding to the question, What if… we really wanted to overcome the academic-vocational divide? were  former Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw;  Mary Curnock Cook, former head of UCAS; and the IOE’s pro director for research and development, Professor Alison Fuller. All were agreed that the quality of vocational education needs to improve.
Sir Michael was the most vociferous on this point, arguing (to much challenge on Twitter) that further education colleges were the least scrutinised and least effective part of the education system, and one that could learn from leading schools’ ‘no excuses’ culture. Problems were identified with the curriculum for vocational education (too often being led by qualifications), assessment (too often aping methods from academic pathways), and a teaching workforce lacking in development opportunities. Mary Curnock Cook highlighted the failure of vocational education to deliver a sufficient standard of literacy and numeracy. As Alison Fuller’s work with Lorna Unwin has shown, certainly on apprenticeships, we do know what good quality provision looks like, so there are no excuses.
But would better quality vocational education in and of itself be enough to challenge what our panellists noted as the innate snobbery in education? Tony Little made the argument that all young people should experience some element of vocational education, because it would make them better learners, and better prepare them for the workplace as well as for university. To encourage this, the panel identified two things in particular that need to change: careers education and university admissions. IAG (information, advice and guidance), which often simply talks pupils through their qualifications options, is not enough; careers education should be informing pupils about the nature of different sectors – public and private, manufacturing and service, as well as what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, and the sacrifices that come with high wage, high responsibility roles.
Ironically, perhaps, Oxbridge admissions might hold the key to overcoming the academic-vocational divide: if those universities required a mix of academic and vocational entry qualifications, it was suggested, there would be a sea change overnight.  As always, the challenge is maintaining fair access to the best opportunities, with the risk that the most prestigious vocational options are taken up by more advantaged learners (with A-levels) – something that a recent report for the Sutton Trust, co-authored by Alison Fuller, has shown.
‘Place’ is a strong theme in public policy at the moment, and has its own implications for vocational education.  The loss of large national industries, which had previously supported vocational pathways, and the uneven geographical spread of employment opportunities, will have knock-ons for vocational education. While the Apprenticeship Levy could, in theory, transform the engagement of (larger) employers in training, it could also compound these disparities. And that brings us to the ultimate driver of the esteem in which academic and vocational routes are held – the labour market, and achieving job quality for all.
So, the divide has not fallen quite yet, and realising this aim will require immense political will.  Our panel members were not confident that recent reforms, including T-levels, were the answer. We must try harder – to improve the quality and ambition of vocational provision, but also to remedy the disparities across local labour markets and declining job quality in a rapidly changing economy, and, perhaps, to educate university admissions tutors.
The next debate in the series takes place on Tuesday 5th December 2017, entitled What if… we wanted to transform teaching as a career choice?. Click on the link for further information and to book your place.

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