Editorial: Are these the dying days of anti-vocational snobbery?

2nd January 2015 at 00:00

Slowly, surely, something is changing in Scotland's secondary schools. And the pupils who will benefit most are those who, in the past, would have counted the days until their 16th birthdays finally presented an escape route from school.

On the last day of term before Christmas, I visited Graeme High School in Falkirk to see its "cycle academy". Not so long ago, this place might have been an afterthought, a quirky lunchtime club run by a lone staffroom enthusiast.

But now the endeavours of the 20 pupils who spend more than four timetabled hours a week in this bicycle workshop are spilling over into the whole school, both physically (salvaged bikes are packed into nooks and crannies all around the building) and in its fundamental approach to education.

What is the sense of prioritising traditional subjects to clear a path to university, the staff reason, if only 30 per cent of pupils will go to university? I was shown a planning document that had the cycle academy at the centre, alongside maths and English. Bikes have parity with biology and business studies at Graeme High.

The rhetoric of Curriculum for Excellence, of a utopia where schools cater for all, has felt quite empty at times. Structurally, culturally, the old ways of doing things have persisted in Scottish education. The hierarchy of course choices, presented on A4 sheets with the same old subjects at the top, sends an implicit but clear message to pupils whose eyes are drawn to the bottom of the page.

In society at large, a university place remains a badge of honour in a way that a college place is not. Public reverence for certain jobs still sucks high-achievers into degrees that they have little enthusiasm for - I've lost count of the number of people I have met who quit law early.

"Vocational" and "academic" are reductive words that create a false dichotomy. Michelangelo may have been the greatest painter-decorator of all time, as the Sistine Chapel attests. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive today, would be more fascinated by a car engine than airless academic theorising.

For too long, school has reinforced rather than challenged a two-tier view of education. But a mental shift appears to be taking place.

An Edinburgh headteacher recently said that schools should try to persuade all pupils to stay until the end of S6 ("Keep hold of your struggling S4s, head tells schools", 19 December). At his school, boat-building and cake craft are now promoted to senior pupils with the same enthusiasm as biology and chemistry. Schools should prepare pupils for careers, the headteacher expounded, adding: "I really don't care what that career is."

Which, as we enter 2015, neatly sums up the philosophy that is blurring old educational divides.

Exciting times, indeed.

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