Patrick Ainley looks at the search for a compromise between the demands of vocational training and a liberal education. Richard Pring, professor of education at Oxford University, has recently co-authored recommendations for a unified system of learning from 14 to 19 on behalf of the Royal Society of the Arts. This book attempts to explain the thinking behind those practical recommendations.
It is divided into three parts, the first of which sets out the wider context of the recent changes in schools, neatly summarised as requiring "a closer integration of education, training, and employment; nonetheless, a sharper focus on personal development; greater concentration upon standards; a redefinition of the partnership to include employers and parents; and a dominant position given to central government in stipulating outcomes."
The second describes the new courses that have arisen within this context. Although the presentation here is schematic rather than historical, so that it is sometimes hard to relate one development to another, there are useful summaries of various vocational initiatives as well as of the components of the national curriculum, "still hung up on an outdated liberal ideal", and of the National Vocational Qualifications framework, described as "the most ambitious Utopian planning that the education and training system has ever seen".
However, the meat of the book is in part three, which "returns to first principles", exploring educational aims and values to question the nature of knowledge and the role of schools in society.
All this is presented in a manner refreshingly free of academic citology, though Professor Smithers' criticisms of NVQs figure rather largely and there are one or two other sources that might perhaps have been acknowledged. Also, Pring's habit of repeatedly listing things does impede the flow somewhat, even if obscure citations do not.
The conclusion he comes to is that we need "to vocationalise the liberal ideal" and that "this more generous concept of liberal education" can be preserved within "a community of educated persons".
This recommendation is, as Pring admits, a conservative one, even if it is being undermined by a party that calls itself Conservative. It relies upon a professional guardianship of education values and does not therefore go far enough beyond the antagonistic dualism of excellence versus competence, even though Pring looks to solutions in "the democratisation of problem solving and decision making" and also to a central concern in all learning and teaching with what it means to become fully human.
The book can therefore be recommended as a serious yet accessible philosophical engagement with the issues facing education and training today. To teachers in higher education many of its arguments may be familiar from the debate over polytechnic as opposed to traditional higher education. In fact, in 1988 Harold Silver and John Brennan advocated just such "a liberal vocationalism" for the polytechnics as Pring is now arguing for in schools and colleges, "liberalising the vocational track and vocationalising the liberal one without betraying the best that is within each".
Now that this vision of polytechnic education has been extinguished in the polys' hopeless competition to ape the antique universities, its last refuge remains in Further Education.
Partick Ainley is the author of Degrees of Difference, a comparison of polytechnic and university education (Lawrence and Wishart)