Brave vocational vision. And why the BTEC not?

11th February 2011 at 00:00

Good swear words make maximum use of plosives and hard-as-razor consonants. The plosive expels your anger like a deflating balloon, while the consonants create a satisfying nut-cracking finality. So here's a new one, straight from the white paper: "BTEC".

Picture yourself with Mr Gove, strolling the Commons terrace. Make the most of the plosive before snapping shut on the final consonant. Satisfying, isn't it?

Here are some sentences you could practise: BTEC schools, deliberately falsifying their league table positions by claiming spurious GCSE equivalence! It's a real BTEC that schools give kids the easy way out instead of slogging through Latin and physics like we did in my day! We're slipping down the international exam tables again? Oh, BTEC!

No doubt some courses are easier than others. All our students who gain good GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology would gain merits in BTEC; the opposite is not true. I know of schools that force kids through these qualifications like my mother used to squeeze leftover Sunday roast through the mincer. Good for league table positions? Not half. Good for education? You decide.

Yet taught properly, these vocational qualifications are not buy-one-get-one-free, but a really good deal. I experienced this in two very different sessions in one day. One was a media Diploma group who had designed their own virtual online game. (Enter Gove, BTEC-ing with indignation.) I watched as they presented their designs to an audience of teachers and Year 7 boys - the experts - who offered a critique.

The second was a performance by a BTEC performing arts group. There were lots of rock bands (exit Gove, fingers in ears) and singers, all performing for the first time in public. The course may not be as academically challenging as A-level IT or music, but the style of learning develops other skills vital for the workplace: confidence, communication, teamwork.

The alternative for some of these students would once have been stacking shelves in Tesco, just as those we used to shoehorn into languages spent more time thrown out of lessons than they did in them.

Schools love these courses, not just because they are good for league tables but because they enable a group of students who have historically only ever experienced failure to succeed. When a school continually trumpets its 70-per-cent five A*-C success, imagine what it feels like to be in the 30 per cent. They are inclusive in that they enable those students to feel part of the success of the school.

Gove is the curriculum polariser. In a speech to the Edge Foundation last year, he was clear that he wants high-quality academic achievement and distinctively vocational qualifications. He is a great supporter of the new university technical colleges (UTCs) that combine "hard practical learning, involving applied work of the most rigorous kind" alongside academic courses. He also supports studio schools, again offering both academic and vocational. What he hates are the sheep in wolves' clothing courses that are called vocational but are "pseudo-academic".

This is a brave and bold vision. But it is relatively easy to roll out by establishing a few UTCs in big urban centres; how you develop these high-quality opportunities for all, even in deepest clotted-cream country, is a much bigger challenge. Is it sensible to rubbish the best alternative we have, the BTECs of the world, in the meantime?

Gove has also opened a second front in the battle for the soul of the curriculum. On the one hand, there is the English Baccalaureate of traditional grammar school subjects, where even RE is cold-shouldered as only a pseudo-humanity.

On the other hand, there are the skills and competency-based approaches. Think back to the QCDA curriculum review of just four years ago. Working with large numbers of teachers, the result was a curriculum map that stressed the aims of education in its broadest sense. It was the kind of approach that chimed with what Guy Claxton promoted in Building Learning Power and the RSA Opening Minds curriculum.

With the demise of key stage 3 Sats, many schools breathed the oxygenated air of this kind of thinking and are now running a wonderfully innovative and exciting curriculum in the early secondary years as a result. We know what will happen. Like so many other accountability measures, the EBac will soon be driving the curriculum. Watch out arts and technology. Here comes GCSE history at the end of Year 8, GCSE geography at the end of Year 9, retakes in Year 10, and retake your retakes in Year 11.

Still, the idea of purist academic married to rigorous vocational has its attractions. Not only will we be able to get a plumber, she'll solder to the sound of Radio 3 and eschew The Sun for Shakespeare in her tea break. I'm warming to the Coalition after all.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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