The Tories are pushing ahead with T (Technical) -Levels promising they represent a major reform of secondary education. Worryingly, Labour is also backing them, mistakenly thinking they will provide real opportunities for the 50% of 17-18 year olds not going university by providing the employment skills needed for social mobility in the new 21st century economy
The low status of vocational and practical learning has been an enduring feature of English education Employers have continued to prefer recruits with academic qualifications and by enlarge, unlike in countries like Germany, where there are clear pathways into employment for those finishing vocational courses and apprenticeships, do not engage with vocational qualifications.
Many educationalists have also continued to be suspicious of academic/ vocational pathways, reminiscent of the grammar / secondary modern divisions in the 1944 Act. With even adherents worrying that the new qualifications will be rushed through without being properly developed, why will the T-levels, be any different?
In fact, there has been a move in employment away from specific occupational competence to more generic knowledge and skills. Thus, the Institute of Directors argues that ‘workers need more than technical knowledge’ and that, as more work is automated, ‘soft’ skills are necessary for collaboration and innovation using problem solving, imagination and abstract reasoning as the likely domains where humans will retain a comparative advantage over robots
Vocational and technical qualifications have also traditionally been associated with entry to ‘middle jobs’ for which, until recently, a degree was not required, and which are generally considered to be at ‘intermediate’ skill level. Yet it is now increasingly argued that many of these jobs are being ‘hollowed out’ disappearing because of increased use of automation, plus outsourcing and the fact that ‘deindustrialisation’ continues to happen more rapidly in the UK than elsewhere.
In other words, encouraging young people onto vocational courses for direct entry into jobs that may not exist even by the time courses are completed will be a major disservice to them. Arguing that vocational/technical pathways do not improve prospects for young people, does not mean that we should accept that academic learning does not need to be reformed.
Major alternatives to Michael Gove’s GCSE and A-levels are badly needed. We should argue for a ‘good general education for all’ in the upper secondary years. This would include a mandatory right to a variety of learning experiences including ‘vocational’ ones and, if properly planned and properly resourced, would finally bury the outdated and unequal ‘two-nations’ approach, at least in the state’s schools.