Vocational education is still seen as being for "other people's children"

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Despite all the rhetoric from politicians, vocational education is still seen as being for "other people's children", says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw. And the truth is, the current education reforms are only going to make things worse.

I continue to worry about the future of vocational education as the government’s reforms push our school system in such an overtly academic direction.

Policy-makers all say the right thing, but their words rarely seem to be evidenced in their policies.

Ask anyone within education about the importance of creating a parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes, and you’ll find them in agreement.

Argue about the need to raise the profile of vocational qualifications in order to prove to parents and students that they are comparable to academic routes and lead to similar career progression, and you’ll be hard pushed to find a dissenting voice.

But the uncomfortable reality is that vocational education has always been seen as “for the disadvantaged” or “for other people’s children”, while university has long been recognised as the preserve of the wealthy, the aspirational and the upper class elite.

It’s shameful, but this perception perseveres today among the parents of middle England, among the privileged political elite who invariably control our education system, and within the mainstream media that pander to both these groups. It is the case that our entire education system remains biased towards academic routes and university education. And the truth is that the current reforms will do nothing but entrench this situation.

The English Baccalaureate was the start of the problems, followed by reforms to GCSEs that firmly orientate the examinations towards those students who fit the traditional university model of learner.

The stripping of hundreds of vocational qualifications from the league tables forced schools to abandon these options, narrowing choice for students who are looking for an alternative (http://bit.ly/10wkQDH).

But this is not all-out attack on the government. I recognise that it has invested in Apprenticeship routes, and the new Higher Level Apprenticeships that are coming online – some of which compare to Level 6 and 7 degree qualifications – offer outstanding career opportunities.

But the fact of the matter is that we are not telling our young people about these opportunities and we are setting our school system up in such a way that creates perverse incentives to focus on academic education.

There is another problem. During National Apprenticeship Week earlier this year various studies was unveiled showing a huge lack of information and guidance for young people about vocational routes and Apprenticeships (http://bit.ly/11GJ3tw).

It doesn’t surprise me. Careers guidance in schools is in a perilous state after the government axed the national Connexions system and instead told schools to deliver careers advice (but giving them none of the estimated £200 million funding that these services need).

Many schools are struggling with this new duty, not only to fund it, but then to find the expertise necessary to give comprehensive services (http://bit.ly/120nmGl).

It doesn’t help when teachers have a naturally in-built bias towards degree education, because that is usually the limit of their experience (and this is not a criticism).

Careers guidance is not a hobby. It is not a part-time job. It is a professional occupation which requires extensive training and expertise. Teachers cannot simply dole out careers advice in a spare 10 minutes between lessons and expect it to meet their students’ needs.

At a time of such economic turmoil, record levels of youth employment, and £9,000-a-year tuition fees, high-quality guidance has never been so important.

The current situation is unacceptable. Schools need more support to deliver comprehensive advice to their students – and we all need to do better (especially the government) in breaking down the entrenched perception that academic pathways are somehow better than vocational routes.

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd. Email him on editor@sec-ed.co.uk or follow on Twitter @pwhenshaw



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