'Without a serious shift in our approach to vocational education, we will fall short of a more equal society'

25th January 2014 at 12:00

Hans van Mourik Broekman, principal, Liverpool College, writes:

Anthony Seldon is an impressive and irrepressible headmaster. His contributions to the debate about social mobility and its relationship with the divide between independent and state schools have been extensive and are always thought provoking. His vision of education is enriched by his broad scholarship and his experiences in both the state and independent sector. If every head in the country were as public spirited and energetic as Dr Seldon, our educational performance would be greatly improved.

His latest call for reform, a report he co-authored for the Social Market Foundation entitled Schools United – Ending the Independent/State School Divide reflects the emphasis of educational reformers in the last decade by focusing more on school funding and school governance than on curriculum. The report’s policy solutions are intended to reverse the onset of social sclerosis and educational inequality by making all schools more like successful independent schools. The report suggests changing the admissions policies and funding of successful state and independent schools. For Dr Seldon, as for Peter Lampl at the Sutton Trust, and as for Michael Gove, lack of social mobility is confirmed by the grip that independent schools and their alumni have on the top universities, the professions and the establishment in general.

The persistent educational inequalities of opportunity and lack of access of poorer children to our country’s most selective institutions and most desirable professions are indeed a problem and the authors prescribe radical means to make things better, but the solution of these problems would not come close to solving the problem of social mobility in the UK.

The authors appear to forget that, by definition, most people will not attend Oxbridge or the most selective Russell Group universities. Social mobility in the UK is primarily hampered by a failure to provide the vast number of young people who may not be going to university with the confidence, skills, qualifications and love of learning to enable them to pursue careers which provide stability, a decent income and professional or occupational pride and status. In order to do this, we should not only look at the prospects of very bright poor young people, we should look at countries that focus effectively on the education of those who are not going to university. Countries where politicians and educators stress the importance of non-university pathways are more socially mobile and more equal. Countries with strong traditions of technical education at secondary level deliver more social mobility. In short, we should begin to worry much more about the confidence, life skills, technical and vocational skills of huge majorities of our young people who are either unable to or uninterested in attending selective universities.

The secondary school curriculum in England and Wales compels all children to study for the same maths and English examinations and imposes a broadly similar curriculum until the age of 16. The introduction of the Ebacc has imposed a traditional grammar-school curriculum on many pupils and has tilted the way we measure and develop the aptitudes of young people decisively in favour of the most academically able and away from those with other abilities and interests, thus strengthening not reducing the inequalities of the status quo.

In countries with higher levels of social mobility, like Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Sweden, pupils are offered technical and vocational pathways that are respected by employers, delivered by schools and that do not carry the label of “second best”. Politicians and educational leaders in these countries emphasise the importance and rigour of these alternative curricula, and they invest time, political capital and resources in developing appropriate curricula to develop the different aptitudes of young people.

A brief glance at the relative chaos of our apprenticeship system, the alphabet soup of qualifications and providers and the failure thus far to create a Ucas system for pathways other than university reveals that our fixation remains on a minority of pupils, when social mobility can only be substantially enhanced if we work hard on the curricula and pathways of all pupils.

It is in this area of technical and vocational education where the independent sector – and I include Dr Seldon and myself in the sector – has virtually nothing to offer. Independent schools in Britain are, as we say in my native US, prep schools, in this case for university. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the report defines success and education exactly according to the parameters set by independent schools and universities. As such, despite its seemingly radical, well meant and headline-producing suggestions, it actually offers more of the same. 

Without serious curricular reform and a shift in our approach to the value and of technical and vocational education, we will continue to fail a large number of young people and fall short of our goal of a fairer and more equal society.


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