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Lost chance or our true vocation?

The post-Tomlinson white paper on 14-19 education is a step in the right direction - but only a step, writes Priscilla Chadwick

The Government's education white paper has disappointed many but pleased some, both in the independent and state school sectors. The proposals to reach higher standards of functional literacy and numeracy by incorporating English and maths GCSE in the general diploma at intermediate level are welcome, and the pressing need for greater differentiation at the top end of A-levels should be addressed by the inclusion of extension questions.

The excessive assessment burden may be alleviated by the reduction of the ASA2 subject modules from six to four, allowing more scope for in-depth and enrichment studies in the post-16 curriculum; and the rationalisation of both the excessive demands of coursework and the plethora of vocational qualifications is long overdue.

At last the age-cohort restrictions created by performance tables (as the Department for Education and Skills prefers to call league tables) will be removed to allow us to celebrate the real achievements of our pupils whenever they are attained.

But it is the failure to endorse the widely-supported proposal to bring academic and vocational qualifications under the same framework that has left many sensing that the Tomlinson report was a wasted opportunity.

It is tempting to feel we have been here before. Those of us who were curriculum managers in the 1980s remember well the excitement and creative energy generated by the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) to bring the traditional academic curriculum up-to-date with more vocational understanding and opportunities.

TVEI was sufficiently flexible in its structure to cater for different abilities and interests and, because its generous funding was channelled through the Department of Trade and Industry (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's contempt for the then Department of Education and Science at the time being well known), it achieved high status among employers, colleges and crucially pupils and parents. By contrast, the Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education (CPVE) introduced around the same time quickly became a course of low status for the least able and was soon dropped.

Perhaps lessons learned from the success achieved by TVEI (before it was overwhelmed by the weight of the national curriculum) are reflected in Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's intention to involve employers and higher education in devising the new specialised vocational diplomas.

The continuing confusion as to what actually is vocational education has not helped the debate. In many people's minds, it means what society needs to ensure you can get hold of a plumber at midnight (though qualifications are no guarantee of that) or a competent electrician when the TV set blows up; but in the context of education, it should be more than trade apprenticeships.

It should incorporate, for example, the need for ICT application and competence across the curriculum and teamwork and problem-solving skills increasingly important in contemporary employment. Studying scientific subjects in preparation for a career in medicine - or engineering, economics and languages for the business world or philosophy for law - are all academically of high status as well as vocationally relevant.

Many of our academically prestigious schools offer specialist drama or music training, high-level sports coaching or Young Enterprise business projects which could be designated "vocational". The traditional polarisation is surely misleading, if not dangerous, today.

A survey of independent schools early in 2005 reviewed their take-up of what might be termed vocational education. While there was a range of opinion reflecting the wide diversity of the independent sector, a significant majority of heads felt the issue of quality and status was critical, since parents naturally want what they think is best for their children and the media is not always helpful in its coverage.

Like the Government's white paper,89 per cent of independent heads who responded felt "status" could be addressed by the active involvement of employers in the design and assessment of vocational qualifications and initiatives to improve their relevance and appeal to a broad range of young people.

Most schools already include vocationally relevant work experience, PSHE, careers and citizenship within their academic programmes: as one head said:

"Is VE an alternative to academic education or an application of it?"

The white paper undoubtedly is a move in the right direction and some key issues finally have been addressed. GCSE and A-levels, recognised by parents, employers and higher education, are to be retained for the time being, and this has been welcomed by those who feel Curriculum 2000 is only just settling down after a difficult start.

It is not impossible that Tomlinson's vision of an over-arching diploma may yet be realised, if the Government maintains the momentum and allocates significant resources to its implementation. These will certainly be needed if Ruth Kelly is to achieve her aim of "an education system focused on high standards and much more tailored to the talents and aspirations of individual young people".

Time will tell.

Priscilla Chadwick is chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'

Conference and principal of Berkhamsted collegiate school

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