Snobbery about vocational education is denying our children opportunities
It is comforting to believe that one child’s success need not diminish another’s. In reality, we cannot avoid turning some children into sacrificial lambs. For the past four years, the government has pushed schools to focus on teaching pupils “traditional subjects”. By fiddling with league table criteria, schools are now rewarded for focusing on the EBacc subjects – a collection of GCSEs including science, a language and geography – and get less or no credit for success in vocational subjects. The changes mean the government can crow about the number of students now taking French or history. But recent research suggests that there is a downside: students who don’t pass these subjects are likely to be heading for the dole queue. A reduction in quality vocational education appears to correlate with increased youth unemployment.
Education academics Thjis Bol and Herman van de Werfhorst used the data from 29 countries, including the UK, to study the impact of vocational qualifications on employment. They found that countries that enabled young people to study for highly specific vocational qualifications while still at school typically had much lower rates of youth unemployment than countries whose students did solely academic subjects. Young people in these countries also spent less time looking for work when between jobs.
In itself, this is not particularly surprising. Teach a child to be a hairdresser, and that they become a hairdresser rather than unemployed makes intuitive sense. But if this link between school and employment is so straightforward, why is the government intent on degrading such qualifications?
First, there is a straightforward snobbery about vocational skills. In my own work as a sixth-form manager, I often found myself faced with a parent whose 16-year-old desperately wanted to take a course in building or catering or childcare – and would have done fantastically well at it – yet they would insist that “no child of theirs” would do such a thing. As if reading books were inherently good and working with one’s hands, or heart, were inherently bad.
A second reason the government may wish to steer children away from vocational education is highlighted by the Bol and de Werfhorst study. They found countries that “academically track” students into vocational education end up with greater achievement disparities between the wealthiest and poorest children. That is, in countries where “clever kids” do academic subjects and “less clever kids” do vocational ones, the chance of poorer children going to university drops significantly.
So everyone in education faces a dilemma. Students have only a finite amount of school time; every hour they learn one skill, they give up learning something else. If you pick out academically weaker students for vocational training, you trade those children’s chances of getting into university for a higher guarantee of paid employment. Some of those students, if left on an academic path, might nevertheless have achieved well and even gone to university, but once on a vocational route they most probably won’t.
What is the government doing to balance this problem? The government answer will be that it opened a raft of university technical colleges – schools for 14- to 19-year-olds that combine highly specialised vocational training with academic qualifications.
A recent announcement also suggested the return of “vocational A-levels”. However, if past form is anything to go by, the students who typically attend specialist vocational schools are those who were struggling academically, and so the school becomes a way of “selecting out” weak students from mainstream schools and placing them elsewhere.
Equally, as sixth-form funding cuts bite, colleges are being increasingly careful about who they admit on to courses. Demanding five B-grade GCSEs has become more common for A-level entry. Given that only 25% of the poorest fifth of students, as measured by neighbourhood deprivation, manage to gain a B average in English, maths and three other GCSEs, if the new “vocational A-levels” also have high entry requirements, then access to this route will be diminished for those who might benefit most.
This brings us back to the sacrificial lambs. The government is doing its best, but it is a difficult thing for people in education to accept that sometimes sacrifices must be made. If there is a compromise that might work, then in an ideal world all children of all abilities would do a blend of academic and vocational subjects. Sadly, our continued snobbery about academic subjects being “better” means this won’t happen. And for as long as it doesn’t, some children will lose out.