Editorial - Wolf's Got Talent, but until the GCSE is binned the curriculum will lack coherence

11th March 2011 at 00:00

Witnessing the reaction to Alison Wolf's report on vocational education is a bit like watching the response of the Britain's Got Talent audience to Susan Boyle. Initial scepticism rapidly followed by universal acclamation. Simplify the system and end micro-management by Government? Excellent idea. Remedial lessons for teenagers who lack good GCSEs in English and maths? Why didn't anyone suggest it before? Expand work-based apprenticeships? Just the ticket!

Even Professor Wolf's assertion that too many vocational qualifications are useless has gained qualified approval. Admittedly, agreeing which qualifications are dodgy and which are not is proving a tad more controversial. But there is a general awareness that some have been taken to aid the performance of schools in league tables rather than to help pupils gain entry into the labour market. This, as she says, is a scandalous betrayal of young people's aspirations.

Above all, Professor Wolf has endorsed the worth of vocational education at a time when many suspected the Government was only interested in a narrow academic agenda (FE Focus, page 4). In her words: "Conventional academic study encompasses only part of what the labour market values and demands... Good vocational programmes are ... respected, valuable and an important part of our ... educational provision."

There is, however, one large fly in Professor Wolf's ointment: her recommendation to limit vocational courses 14 to 16-year-olds can take to 20 per cent of the curriculum. This not only denies these youngsters significant practical experience, it also discounts the role vocational education plays in engaging pupils academically. It also raises the suspicion that this limit was suggested to comply with the demands the EBac makes on a very crowded curriculum. That may be an ungenerous interpretation, but if correct it would be an echo of the last Government's unfortunate tendency to address vocational needs through an academic prism.

The best way to avoid such contradictions has been suggested by former education secretary Estelle Morris and educationalist Alan Smithers, among others - scrap the GCSE. It is a useless, expensive relic; a school-leaving certificate dispensed at an age when hardly anyone leaves education. Far better to have a universal exam at 14 - we could call it the EBac. This would allow pupils three or four years to pursue a meaningful vocational or academic route, or a mix of the two.

Intriguingly, Professor Wolf hints at this possibility in her call to allow FE colleges to enrol 14-year-olds full-time. But, of course, it will not happen on any scale. Nor will the Government scrap GCSEs. It would be expensive, politically difficult and upset a system based on divisions at 11 and 16. Imagine a school structure that conforms to the needs of the pupils rather than the other way round. About as likely as Professor Wolf appearing on Britain's Got Talent. gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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