A long way from parity?


Christine Lewis on the entrenched inequality that still exists between academic and vocational education.

The purpose of secondary education has proved problematic since its inception. Is it about personal development and is learning a goal in itself? Or is it about fitting a young person for the world of work?

The 1926 Hadow Report described the various attempts to establish “advanced instruction” for the masses. A pupil’s capacity was to be stimulated “through a liberal provision of opportunities for practical work”. The adolescents in mind were clearly not those who would advance to university.

The dichotomy in destinations for young people was clear – academic (then for the very few) and vocational for the many. Educationalists were often keen to apply the higher purpose of enlightenment to working-class young people, but the essence of their education for policy-makers was work-related.

This duality has provided the letters that run through secondary education’s stick of rock. From 1944 to the 1970s, the 11-plus system corralled the young “sheep” and “goats” in separate institutions. Some working-class children were socially mobile via exam success and exceptional ability, but the majority were not. 

The comprehensive system was introduced in 1976 when Jim Callaghan spoke of enabling children to find their full potential within a system that was to “equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work”. By the 1980s, the Apprenticeship system was crashing as the supply of well-paid and skilled blue-collar jobs diminished in the face of de-industrialisation. Since then, our drive to develop an alternative knowledge economy has thrown political emphasis on widening participation in higher education; but there have to be some viable alternatives.

The 14 to 19 Diplomas tried to bridge the gap between academic and vocational; the Education Maintenance Allowance deterred early leaving on economic grounds, and Connexions supported young people in transition to further study or work. All cashiered, none has a suitable replacement.

We live in a deeply stratified society and education can both reflect and reinforce difference. At its extremes, the labour market divides between immorally well-paid and even more immorally low-paid jobs. While equal access to higher education is indisputably supported, young people from poorer backgrounds are still more likely to study near home, attend less prestigious universities, and reap fewer rewards from their degree.

And what are the alternatives in terms of vocational options that might attract young people? Behind the “parity of esteem” rhetoric, the majority of young people are on unjust and unequal tramlines based on other people’s expectations, stereotypes and their own accidental history. The perception and treatment of college education is an expression of how far we need to travel towards equality.

In 2013, 846,000 16 to 18-year-olds were studying in further education compared to 441,000 in schools (plus 51,000 14 to 15-year-olds and 72,000 on Apprenticeships); 15 per cent of students were eligible for free school meals, compared to nine per cent in schools. This low-profile majority of young people, disproportionately poorer, are nearly 20 per cent less well funded than those in schools and their institutions have just been subjected to savage funding cuts.

Our economic, social and political strategy should be fed by an education system that is designed to respect heterogeneity of interest and destinations, with a broader, less background-dictated, view of achievement. Standards should be framed in terms of job quality and equivalence of pay across society. 

UNISON surveyed its young members last year and 1,400 respondents showed a fear of unemployment because of casual, insecure contracts; dissatisfaction with the quality of Apprenticeships/jobs generally and a pessimism about their future. 

Every young person would have more motivation to achieve a Level 2 qualification if they saw their choice as more education or a decent job at the end of the tunnel. If these required skills that must be learned over years, in which employers have to invest, that society respects and rewards, some optimism might return.

  • Christine Lewis is national officer for education at UNISON. Visit www.unison.org.uk


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