We still haven't closed the vocational divide ― and the EBacc certainly won't help


As MPs call for ministers to do more to help schools effectively promote apprenticeships, SecEd editor Pete Henshaw asks if we can ever close the vocational-academic divide with our current EBacc obsession.

Despite years of discussion about how we can close the gulf in esteem between academic and vocational education, we still do not have a grasp on this most vital of issues.

MPs this week reported their findings after carrying out an in-depth investigation into the government’s apprenticeships programme (click here for the full news report). While the vocational-academic divide is about more than just apprenticeships vs university, the report gives us a useful state of the nation insight.

The MPs found that still, in 2012, after years of debate about the vocational-academic divide, there is an “underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route”.

The government spent £1.2 billion on apprenticeships last year, a wide range of employers recognise the importance and potential of apprenticeships, and ministers often talk of the important role these pathways play for the economy of our country. 

However, despite this being the case, research quoted by the MPs found that while 63 per cent of pupils can name A levels as a post-GCSE option, only seven per cent can name an apprenticeship. We have a clear disconnect.

It is clear that the information is not getting through to students. I suspect this is down to a number of factors, not least parents who still believe that the vocational pathway is second-class to academic options.

But it is not just the parents – schools are obviously not doing enough to communicate to students the benefits of vocational learning. However, we must acknowledge that this is in a context where schools are judged and measured solely on the academic success and future pathways of their students. The pressure on schools to achieve A level passes and university undergraduates is immense and has translated itself into some schools placing pressure onto students when they are deciding their futures.

In addition, while the National Apprenticeship Service does not have a legal duty to promote apprenticeships in schools (this duty rests with the schools themselves), surely it must do more given research findings like those above.

The NAS told MPs that it sees its role as one of support, but MPs say the name of the NAS must be a familiar one in schools – and if it had a stronger presence it would lead to more students being aware of apprenticeship options.

And we cannot forget that rolled up into all of this is the historical context of our education system – which has always held academic pursuit as having more merit than practical and skills-based education. Going back years, our system was borne from the class-riven societies of the 1800s when higher learning was the preserve of the upper classes and we have never gotten over this historical influence in our attitudes to education.

But it is possible to achieve parity of esteem. SecEd reported last week on the work of Professor Nancy Hoffman who has focused on what lessons we can learn from successful vocational systems around the world.

In Germany and Switzerland, for example, core knowledge and skills are taught in context – with students working on hands-on projects in order to grasp the practical application of knowledge (Vocational lessons, SecEd 331, November 8, 2012). And when you see how successful systems have combined practical and skills-based education with academic study to such great effect, you realise just how insane the English Baccalaureate reforms are.

I believe we have the apprenticeships to rival those found abroad – but the only message being given to our schools, students and parents is that the EBacc, A levels and then a degree is the only measure of a quality education. 

In their report, MPs told the Department for Education to do more to help schools promote apprenticeships, but until our ministers themselves see vocational learning as on a par with the EBacc and academic study, until they recognise that the two can sit together, we will never solve this problem.


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