Gove, Lord Baker and vocational learning

Since becoming education minister, Gove has largely concentrated on  reforming  the academic curriculum, introducing an English Baccalaureate made up of five traditional curriculum areas, arguing that  A-levels have  to be made harder,  trying to reintroduce O-levels and so on. Though claiming  changes have to be made to bring the British education system more in line with those in high performing economies (DfE White Paper 2010) Gove’s  secondary school proposals  are as much a ‘restorationist’  as a ‘modernising’ project –  supposedly  returning us  to a  ‘golden age’  represented by  the grammar schools  (

Despite his preoccupation with academic learning however, Gove did commission Alison Wolf to carry out a ‘review’ of vocational learning. Wolf is condemnatory of current provision, particularly the specialised vocational pathways for 14-16 year olds, introduced as a result of Sir Ron Dearing’s reviews of Kenneth (now Lord) Baker’s then ‘ten subject’ National Curriculum in the early 1990s and developed further under New Labour governments.  She considers the BTEC style qualifications ‘valueless’ in a collapsing youth labour market,  arguing a generation has been ‘short changed’(Wolf, TES,04/03/11)  when apprenticeships should have been created instead.

Acting on Wolf’s advice Gove is removing the BTECs from school league tables. Wolf also wants greater emphasis on ‘real’ English and maths – stressing not enough young people pass GCSEs in both of these.

Gove’s (and Wolf’s) proposals have not pleased those Tories who continue to adhere to Dearing principles; most notably Baker himself who told Radio 4’s Today Programme (03/03/11) that Wolf ‘doesn’t  go far enough’.  Baker is champion of University Technical Colleges – schools providing specialisms for 14-19 students with the backing of universities and local employers, the first three open this September.

UTC’s would seem to fit uneasily with the new Gove curriculum and Wolf’s proposals for vocational learning, but it’s clear they represent the latest attempt to create a ‘middle’ or technical stream – as much as the ‘two tier’ system campaigners fear.  It’s uncertain  whether  all  UTC’s will offer the 5 E-bac GCSE’s as a core and they obviously won’t be able to comply with Wolf’s recommendation that vocational learning should be restricted to 20% of the key stage 4 curriculum.

Attempts to establish a technical stream in the English education have been a dismal failure however. In reality, 1944 tripartism became a grammar and secondary modern divide –with the ‘middle way’ technical schools thin on the ground, suffering from lack of resources but also according to Baker from  ‘English snobbery’  about ‘getting your hands dirty’,-schools-for-getting-your-hands-dirty.  When education minister, Baker tried to establish City Technology Colleges, but most technical /vocational education continued to be provided by Further Education colleges often on part-time ‘day release ’basis supplementing‘ on the job learning where those employers who still needed them continued to run apprenticeships.

More recently, rather than creating distinct schools, the emphasis has been placed on developing  the vocational pathways referred to above within  comprehensives. However, even if the more student-centred learning the vocational approach encourages has been popular with many teachers, most would agree with Wolf that vocational qualifications have little real status.  Apart from  BTECs, the most successful initiative has probably been the GNVQs created in the 1990s, but these suffered from ‘academic drift’ after they were re launched as  ‘applied’  versions of GCSE and A-levels, the very academic qualifications they have sought to provide an alternative to. As a result, many  schools and colleges returned to BTECs.  GNVQs were also followed by the ill-fated specialist diplomas

Whatever may have been the case in the past  (Baker points to the German ‘dual system’ of academic and technical learning as being a reason for the country’s economic success) with the decline of skilled manual employment, it’s questionable whether this sort of ‘middle’ stream  now corresponds with new economic realities and labour market requirements.

The UTC initiative is also comparatively small – even with another 30 at the planning stage, less than 20,000 students will be enrolled.  Of those opening in September 2012, the £15 million Aston UTC is the most distinct, housed in new premises next to its university sponsor  and with a strong engineering profile – even if after the closure  of MG Rover at Longbridge  engineering employment in Birmingham has fallen dramatically, it may at least encourage some locally living students to apply to Aston.

In sharp contrast, Hackney UTC, which is sponsored by a local NHS Trust and part of Hackney Community College, will specialise in ‘health and digital technology’ but will offer GCSEs in language and humanities. While Central Bedfordshire UTC in Luton – also housed in an existing FE college – will offer ‘product design, engineering and manufacturing’ – presumably using the resources this college already has.

But if Dearing style vocational pathways   for 14 year olds will no longer be available in most schools, will the only alternative for young people be the statutory academic subjects of the English Baccalaureate? The ‘Experts Report’ on National Curriculum reform provides some hints:

‘We are not proposing that all students follow full GCSE courses in the full range of subjects and topics that we envisage being statutory at Key Stage 4. We recommend that evidence should be collected on whether non-certificated provision (with fewer hours’ timetable allocation per week)… would be motivating or demotivating’ (4.20)

This would not only open the door for the creation of new divides, but would mean a sort of watered down secondary modern curriculum for non E-bac students, allowing the additional emphasis on literacy and numeracy Wolf wants. This type of  differentiation also  fits the polarised  or ‘pear shaped’ occupational structures of the 21st century where – rather than the highly skilled, specialist employment  opportunities promised by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,  large numbers will only need ‘basic skills’ for  jobs that are either non-specialist or largely routine.  Reformers must campaign for a broad general curriculum for everyone, but first of all they need to seriously challenge Gove’s vision.

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