CBI’s curriculum proposals. A step forward, but big questions remain

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The CBI’s John Cridland has re-opened the debate about the 14-19 curriculum.   

             http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/john-cridland-festival-of-education-speech/

Cridland has called for GCSE to be abolished within 5 years ‘High-stakes exams at 16 are from a bygone era’ and, in a further swipe at the Gove/Morgan examination reforms, for the status of vocational learning to be upgraded.  ‘For too long, we’ve just ‘pretended’ to have a multiple route education system. Yet in reality there has been only one path the system values – GCSEs, A-levels, University.’

Cridland’s comments put him closer to Labour’s Tristram Hunt and his Tech-Bacc,  but also to Tory, Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the instigator of University Technical Colleges.  Cridland also calls  for a more flexible ‘personalised’ curriculum allowing academic and vocational study to be mixed and which would provide ‘Great teachers in classrooms with the freedom to deliver great, innovative teaching harnessing new approaches and technologies’.  He also wants much better careers advice, closer links between employers and schools and the restoration of the careers service.

The GCSE used to be considered the ‘teachers exam’ because of its emphasis on coursework and because it was available to all. Those days are long since gone and as a result, many would support Cridland’s calls for abolition.  Yet on the other hand, there is no reason why some form of assessment at 16 shouldn’t continue, but within a much broader baccalaureate framework providing the main certification at 18.

Cridland’s proposals for vocational education are less clear and much weaker. On the one hand he wants to include more work experience  and like many others in the UK, including Baker and Labour’s Lord Adonis, looks to Germany for inspiration.  At the same time he wants vocational courses to also have the ‘gold standard’ A-level label – even though  the most successful vocational course so far, the GNVQ   was reinvented as  a vocational A-level in Labour’s Curriculum 2000 reforms, but failed to establish itself  as entries dropped to a few thousand.

The main problem with Cridland’s approach and that of Baker and Hunt for that matter is it’s refusal to be critical of ‘academic’ education in itself – only to say that it’s not suitable for everybody. Thus. ‘For many – including me, and most Ministers – that path was the right one. But for many others, it’s not’.   Isn’t this just another way of saying that ‘vocational qualifications are all right for other people’s children…’ ?

A serious analysis of qualifications has to consider the part played by what sociologists call ‘powerful knowledge’. Labour governments have been trying to improve the status of vocational qualifications for years but haven’t succeeded.    Powerful (academic) knowledge has long been upheld by elite universities –where few if any ‘vocational’ students are ever admitted.  It’s powerful knowledge, not it’s vocational or practical content that secures jobs in the City or leading roles in business.  

Not surprisingly this isn’t addressed by Cridland, (MA, History, Christ’s College Cambridge) yet until it is, differences in status between different types of knowledge will also continue.  We could make a start by calling for a general diploma with a mandatory core of academic and vocational study, in otherwords, without different routes or  ‘pathways’ and then  campaigning for  it to be the main entrance qualification across higher education.

Better careers advice should also be encouraged, but has to be in the context of expanding job opportunities themselves. The problem for most young people isn’t that they make the wrong choices –but that there are little in the way of alternatives.  In an economy becoming ever more sharply divided into ‘lovely’ and ‘lousy’ jobs and where people are as likely to be overqualified than lacking skills, there’s no real evidence, at least not yet, that doing an apprenticeship, that’s if you are lucky to get one, will ever allow you to earn anywhere near as much as if you have even a reasonable degree.  

The countries where the differences between academic and vocational learning are smallest, are invariably countries where the level of inequality has always been lower and where vocational and technical education has traditionally been part of a defined route into employment.  Cridland’s proposals should be welcomed by educational reformers, but they still leave as many questions as answers.

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