Academic education for some. Vocational courses for the others. Wilshaw’s answer to ‘One size fits all’


In a widely reported speech to  the think-tank Centre Forum,  Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has slammed the  ‘One-size-fits-all’ emphasis on traditional academic subjects by secondary schools, declaring that this ‘will never deliver the range of success that their youngsters need’   Wilshaw is not promoting a more student friendly type of learning though, far from it –he despises the ‘misguided ideologies’ of ‘miserable decades of the 1970s, 80s and 90s’ which, he maintains allowed children to ‘pick out their worksheet and learn at their own speed’.  Instead, he argues that  the current secondary curriculum offer prevents ‘less academic’ students from getting the high quality vocational education to get them ready for the workplace, citing other countries with well-developed vocational pathways.  

Barely a year ago, Wilshaw  told a CBI conference that pupils should transfer to different schools at 14  Dissident Tory Kenneth Baker continues to argue this, gaining cross party support for his University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Now, Wilshaw, careful to avoid controversy about restoring grammar schools, says that vocational specialisation should take place within a ‘truly comprehensive’ system with schools working together in clusters and federations, rather than through the LEA, which would include a UTC, allowing students to ‘transfer across institutions’(!)

Many supporters of comprehensive education would consider the creation of vocational streams and certainly separate schools as a return to the ideas of the 1944 Act, yet Wishaw does appear to be right in his assertion that Germany and Switzerland, countries with established vocational pathways have much lower rates of youth unemployment. Yet this is mainly because these countries, particularly Germany, have a much more regulated youth labour market where vocational education is linked to an apprenticeship system which requires part-time attendance at specialist colleges, but more importantly, largely guarantees future employment for those who complete their training. 

In Germany, this is part of a wider ‘social partnership’, which despite its limitations and the Neo-liberal outlook of most of its leaders’ stands in sharp contrast to the UK (and US) ‘market sate’ approach.  Wilshaw, like others, point to the low quality of many vocational courses, but the real problem is that UK employers have never had the same commitment to vocational education, preferring to recruit candidates with higher status academic qualifications instead. This is the reason why young people, despite fees, sign up for university in droves. Compared to those in Germany and Switzerland, UK apprenticeships are short-term, low-level and dead-end with employers as likely to convert existing staff to apprenticeship status to access government funding as they are to offer young people real employment opportunities

Rather than spend money on lengthy apprenticeship training, UK employers also know they can recruit from a bulging graduate labour force, many of whom are being pushed down into the ‘middling’ jobs that vocational, technical and apprenticeship training has traditionally been associated with. But it’s also the case that many of these middling jobs have continued to disappear anyway as a result of developments in technology. This process being much further advanced in the UK (and the US), compared with Germany for example, which has been able to maintain a stronger manufacturing base and slow down the process of de-industrialisation.

In these circumstances and without other major economic and political changes,  it’s unlikely that hiving off students into vocational courses will improve their employment chances or that young people will be persuaded to sign up for this sort of pathway. Baker’s UTCs continue to open but several are finding it difficult to recruit a full cohort. What’s needed is a good general education for everybody, but this also requires major reform of academic learning –something that most curriculum reformers have not been prepared to address.   Wilshaw like Baker and for that matter, the CBI leaders who complain about schools becoming ‘exam factories’, is not critical of the E-Bacc itself, he wants to preserve ‘high-level academic study’ as a form of learning for the few. For these guys, vocational alternatives are always for other people’s children –never their own.

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