Michael Gove’s decision to limit how vocational qualifications are included in school league tables is consistent with recommendations in the Wolf report. Wolf proposed restricting vocational learning to no more than 20% of a key stage 4 student’s curriculum, but her proposals brought her into conflict with the still influential Lord (Kenneth) Baker – the creator of the original National Curriculum and more recently the driving force behind the University Technical College. For Baker, Wolf’s proposals ‘did not go far enough’.
Baker favours the continuation of the ‘pathways’ approach developed by Sir Ron Dearing in the 1990s – where students specialise in either academic or vocational learning, post-14. This is a return to the ideas of the 1944 Act. While it’s true that many students have been able to use Advanced level vocational qualifications as alternative entry qualifications for some universities, schools often use vocational courses to accommodate students with ‘behaviour’ problems. Few schools offer courses in horse care, nail technology and fish husbandry –the qualifications that have been given media attention, but many offer BTEC certificates and diplomas in areas like business and social care at key stage 4. After 2014, most of these courses which are given equivalent value of two, sometimes four GCSEs will not be eligible for league table inclusion.
BTECs and the now defunct GNVQs are sometimes said to develop important ‘generic’ skills and competences necessary in the modern ‘post-Fordist’ workplace, where workers are supposed to be more flexible and to multi-task. In contrast, Wolf argues most level 2/GCSE equivalent vocational qualifications are ‘worthless’. By this she means that employers don’t value them. She argues that in the present economic climate all young people need to gain established qualifications, particularly in maths and English. With skilled manual employment no longer available for most young people, she is probably right – but it is highly questionable whether the workplace has ever really been ‘post-Fordist’ or whether many new jobs in the service economy do require major changes in skills.
Wolf’s arguments about qualifications overlap with Gove’s attempts to make the English Baccalaureate subjects the new ‘core’ curriculum. But if Wolf’s reasons are economic or about enhancing ‘employability,’ Gove’s are as much cultural and historical – and are supposed to represent a return to the ‘proper’ traditional subject basket of the post-war grammar school. Gove’s decision will inevitably downgrade vocational qualifications further. Yet because the division between academic and vocational learning is as much political and ideological as it is educational – they can never ever enjoy equal status. We need to campaign for a good general education for everyone.