Will we ever take vocational education seriously?​

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Children have long hit an educational brick wall when they fail to get the grades at GCSE. Are policymakers finally beginning to realise this?

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There is a new hero protector for the less academic child. Step forward none other than Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector. He has recently been speaking up for the child who needs vocational training but has precious few choices of a quality experience post GCSE. While being careful to praise the current education system relative to the past, he bemoans the educational brick wall all children hit if they fail to get the grades at GCSE.

There is, he argued in a speech to the CentreForum, a moral imperative as well as an economic one to improve the vocational provision open to them. ‘People have criticised our vocational and technical education for the last 50 years,’ he said. ‘But it’s as bad as it ever was.’

He criticised the ‘one size fits all’ approach to education – a clear swipe at the academic obsessions of the current government and its EBacc – and looked wistfully at Germany and the Scandinavian countries where vocational education is taken much more seriously. Whereas here: ‘Preparation for employment remains poor, and careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak.’

He added: ‘The statistics show that those who fail to achieve the required grades in maths and English at 16 make little or no progress in further education colleges two years later.’ Better vocational education would reduce the amount of youth unemployment, he went on to say, before quoting the City & Guilds report on the much lower rates of youth unemployment in countries with good vocational education systems.

Sir Michael has previously criticised poor quality apprenticeships which failed to give young people the professional and technical skills employers required, and blamed schools for not preparing children for the world of work. His dire forebodings about vocational education were echoed by a former Tory Education Minister, Kenneth Baker, who accused secondary schools of refusing to allow University Technical Colleges (UTCs) into schools so they could show 14-year-olds a different educational path. They were, he said, snobs about vocational education and didn’t want to lose the pupil-led funding if students moved across to more appropriate environments.

Sir Michael’s comments were summarily dismissed by the DfE, who said: ‘We know that young people benefit from studying a strong academic core of subjects up until the age of 16, which they can complement with additional arts subjects or vocational qualifications. That’s why we are making the EBacc the expectation for every child who is able.’

The government wants to make the presentation of apprenticeships as a career path, but everything about their academisation of the secondary school curriculum militates against vocational training being seen as anything other than second class. And it starts at a very young age. Science and technology in primary schools, which was blossoming under the original National Curriculum, has now become a much more diluted and desultory affair, drained by the obsession with maths and English and the inspection regime which enforces it.

For Wilshaw to cry ‘shame’ about vocational education and for the government to legally enforce the presentation in schools of apprenticeships is like two policymakers getting into a little rowing boat and paddling vainly against a raging torrent they have both created.

Innovative approaches to STEM – a key issue for 2016

On the bright side, the need to inspire young people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), both for the sake of the future labour market and for the sheer thrill of it, is well recognised – even by the DfE who’ve done so much to thwart it. Here at Creative Teaching & Learning, we hear much about the innovative teachers and schools all over the country experimenting with exciting approaches to STEM; it is our aim this year to share these with you, from the most ambitious initiatives to simple creative strategies to try in your own classroom. (For a start, check out Ed Walsh’s article this issue on creative approaches to primary physics).

In fact, we’re so committed to helping you inspire your pupils to become the scientists, engineers and innovators of tomorrow, that, this February, we’ve teamed up with Shell to bring you a free special issue of Creative Teaching & Learning. The issue focuses on Shell’s new national competition, The Bright Ideas Challenge, which invites pupils aged 11 to 14 to imagine creative solutions to energy challenges faced by future cities, and will help you get the most from the competition in terms of teaching opportunities. And we can’t forget the grand prize: £5,000 to supersize your school’s STEM teaching!

Our special issue is available to download now.

Creative Teaching & Learning