On the right track

24th June 2011 at 01:00
University technical colleges could raise the status of vocational education while absolving schools of the requirement to cater for `unacademic' children. But is it right to allow 14-year-olds to make life-changing decisions about where their future lies?

James has always been interested in how things work. When he was younger, he used to take his toys apart and put them together again, and he has long harboured ambitions to be a designer.

When it was time to choose his options in Year 9, an engineering diploma seemed a more natural fit than a batch of GCSE courses. But the only diploma available at his school was in health, a different kind of mechanics altogether. "It couldn't really offer the lessons I wanted," he says.

He could have resigned himself to waiting until he was 16 to take a course that really interested him, but James was keen not to hang around. So he took the radical route and swapped schools, embarking on an experiment that is promising to reintroduce selection to the educational lexicon.

Selection has long been considered a dirty word in many educational circles. The 11-plus exam, which sorted children into grammar schools and secondary moderns, was accused of creating social divisions and labelling children as failures before they even reached puberty. Although some still mourn its passing - and pockets of resistance remain - calls for the return of selection at 11 are not so much rebuffed as ignored.

But what if selection takes place not at 11 but at 14? And what if it is not the schools doing the selecting, but the pupils?

Critics claim that this risks pigeonholing children at an early age, and that the non-academic route will inevitably be seen as inferior, much as secondary moderns were perceived in relation to grammar schools. But advocates of the move suggest it will help to prevent young people such as James from feeling that school has nothing to offer them.

In effect, selection at 14 is precisely what is happening at James's new school. All 120 Year 10 students at the JCB Academy in Staffordshire opted to enrol after leaving their schools at the end of Year 9. Instead of studying courses that held little interest - and for which they may have had little aptitude - they have embarked on a programme of subjects that appeal to them.

"My friends were surprised I came here because I'm the only one from my old school," says Harriet, another of the academy's Year 10 pupils. "But they were happy I'm doing something I want to do."

The academy is the first in what promises to be a nationwide chain of university technical colleges (UTCs), which aim to offer an alternative to the traditional curriculum for students aged from 14 to 19. Former education secretary Lord Baker is the man with the plan, drawn up with the late Lord Dearing, and he has convinced the Government to fund 24 of the schools by 2014, to the tune of pound;150 million. Nor do his ambitions stop there: he wants 100 UTCs by 2015 and envisages that in a decade there will be 2-300.

But if they are the schools of the future, Lord Baker roots them firmly in the past, more precisely in proposals put forward during the Second World War to create a parallel system of grammar schools and technical schools, with a transfer age of 13 or 14. The plan was turned down on the grounds it would not suit the existing grammar schools, which started at 11. "That was a big mistake," he says.

He argues that it makes much more sense for children to start to follow different paths when their aptitudes have become apparent, which he suggests makes 14 the right age.

The model usually held up for this approach is the German system, which consists of three different streams. Academically inclined pupils go to the Gymnasium, the Realschule offers a mixture of academic and technical courses, while the Hauptschule is a route into vocational training.

Although pupils are separated into their different streams at 10, they follow a common core curriculum - albeit at varying levels - until 14, after which they start to take different subjects. A similar system operates in the Netherlands, although selection there takes place at 12.

These systems could provide a template for introducing selection at 14 in England, Lord Baker argues. "At 14, many youngsters know where their interests lie," he says. "They are growing up and maturing and they know then what they are best at and what they are likely to be best at. The education system should reflect that."

This view was echoed by the headmaster of top independent Charterhouse in a speech last month to mark the Surrey school's 400th anniversary. Reverend John Witheridge claimed the comprehensive system is failing children at both ends of the spectrum: bright children are left to coast and practically minded pupils often miss out on good skills training.

He acknowledged that selection at 11 risked branding children failures. Instead, he argued in favour of selection at 13 or 14, although he advocated tests to assess pupils' aptitudes, rather than leaving the decision in the hands of the children themselves.

The alternative, retaining the status quo, Lord Baker suggests, leads many young people to become disillusioned with education.

"One of the reasons we have so many disengaged youngsters in our comprehensives at 12, 13 and 14 is that they don't feel they're learning anything that is likely to lead to a job," he says. On top of this, elevating the status of technical education will also help close the skills gap with countries such as Germany, where engineering is more highly prized.

What makes this process easier is that 14 is already established as an appropriate age to start specialising. "It is when youngsters are making that choice anyway," says Jim Wade, principal of the JCB Academy. "The concept here is that they have chosen their options at the end of Year 9 and they have chosen to do engineering and business."

The idea is not to provide an entirely technical education. Instead, the curriculum is "40 per cent technical, 60 per cent academic," according to Lord Baker. All Year 10 and 11 pupils at the academy take GCSEs in English, maths, science, German and ICT, as well as their diplomas in engineering and business.

But the school does aim to give its pupils a "holistic experience", says Mr Wade, where there is a definite technical slant to the non-technical subjects. So in maths, the emphasis is on its practical applications; pupils learn business rather than literary German.

"We try to make the learning relevant, where possible," Mr Wade adds. "If you are interested in engineering, you are likely to get better outcomes in English if you are writing about jet engines than about something else.

"It isn't right for everybody: there are students who want to be artists or historians or geographers, but for those youngsters for whom it is right we provide an environment that is helpful for their education."

This holistic approach extends to the school building, housed in a former 18th-century cotton mill, in the village of Rocester, just outside Uttoxeter, home to its sponsor, the manufacturing company whose name it bears.

Pictures of huge cogs are etched into seemingly every available glass surface, including the glass walls that make the classrooms feel open and light. The site once occupied by the mill's waterwheel is now taken by an Archimedes screw, which aims to supply up to 80 per cent of the school's power, although today it is not working.

But if the emphasis at the JCB Academy is on the practical and the technical, Mr Wade insists it is no less academically rigorous than any other school. It is a misapprehension that it is a soft option, he says, one that may have been shared by some of its pupils.

Although Mr Wade concedes he is attracted by the idea of an aptitude test to determine those most suited to a technical education, the school chooses its intake at random from among those who apply. Those who saw it as an easy ride were in for a shock.

"I think some of them have been a bit surprised," says Paula Gwinnett, who spent 20 years in industry before joining the academy as an engineering teacher. "It is incredibly demanding and it is not a course for students who want an easy life."

This may help to address one of the most frequent criticisms of the idea of streaming: that one route will inevitably have lower status and become less desirable as a result. Another oft-levelled objection is that such a separation risks pigeonholing pupils and leaves them less room for manoeuvre if they change their minds.

Mr Wade believes that the academic content of the JCB curriculum guards against this. At 16, students can opt to either continue with a technical education at the academy, or transfer into an FE or sixth-form college to pursue a more traditional range of subjects. He does not believe any of his pupils are narrowing their options. "If you want to go on and be a doctor, then of course you can do that," he says.

Only experience will show if a technical education becomes as valued as the more conventional path, although he acknowledges there is some way to go to overcome deep-rooted prejudices.

"There is always a worry that technical education is somehow seen as second class, but we want to make it a real aspiration for young people," he says. "Then maybe in the future more young people will follow technical careers."

Lord Baker is not the only former education secretary to believe that 14 is the right age to start specialising. Baroness Morris, a former teacher who held the post under Tony Blair, told a conference earlier this year that pupils who were more suited to practical courses would be less likely to drop out of school if they started studying them at 14.

But Andy Green, a specialist in comparative education at London University's Institute of Education, warns of the dangers of specialisation. He argues that while the German system has been successful in keeping unemployment low, it is less suited to the more flexible labour market in the UK.

"I'm not madly in favour of a vocational track at 14," he says. "It is too early and it cuts down young people's options. They are not ready to decide at that age."

He also argues that efforts to raise the status of vocational qualifications could also be stymied by the Government's promotion of the English Baccalaureate, which marginalises them, as a measure of success.

"It is good that there are a variety of vocational options, but to sideline a group of young people from mainstream core academic subjects is not a good idea," Professor Green adds.

Jim Wade, however, is keen to distinguish between vocational and technical education. Students at the JCB Academy study technical skills - with the aid of its well-equipped workshops that would be the envy of any other school - to equip them for a range of potential careers, and not vocational courses that funnel them towards one job or another.

UTCs are not the only schools to offer alternative paths at 14. Similar routes are being developed in mainstream schools, although the legacy of the 11-plus is a reluctance to apply words such as "selection" and "streaming", with their connotations of failure for those who are not selected.

From this September, Wrotham School in Kent is introducing a system whereby Year 10 and 11 pupils will follow one of four pathways, named after four icons of English literature.

At one end of the spectrum, students in the Chaucer group will combine BTECs and GCSEs with an emphasis on functional skills, while at the other the Orwell group will take subjects that would qualify them for the English Baccalaureate, including a foreign language. The intervening Shakespeare and Austen groups take a mixture of courses.

The school's existing Year 9 pupils were guided towards different routes based on their key stage 2 results and teacher assessments, says deputy head Martin Jones. He recognises that the new system will give students less choice of courses, but says they are more likely to end up taking ones that match their abilities and interests.

Some of the pupils in Chaucer group will spend a day a week at a local FE college, taking courses in construction, car mechanics or hairdressing. Mr Jones points out that many courses are shared between the four groups, adding that he would be "uncomfortable" with a system that was excessively restrictive at 14.

"As long as you are not closing off too many options, I think it is the appropriate age," he says. "It is the point in their school lives when they start to specialise and it enables them to follow courses they are particularly interested in.

"Ultimately, they are not going to do very well if they are on courses that are poorly suited to their interests. If they are happy and enjoying their learning, they are more likely to do well."

At Lord Lawson of Beamish School in Birtley, County Durham, about a third of the key stage 4 students spend a day a week taking vocational courses, either at a local FE college or in the school's own hairdressing salon, plumbing and electrical studios or childcare nursery.

These students will also study applied English and maths courses tailored to their interests. For example, English oral work for hairdressing students might include working with clients or talking on the phone.

The result is that students who might have become disillusioned in following a purely academic path, leading to a decline in grades, attendance and behaviour, remain engaged with school, says headteacher David Grigg.

But he is wary of drawing a clear line between academic and vocational paths. All students at Lord Lawson take at least one vocational course, and Mr Grigg believes it is important they keep their options open.

"The danger of specialising at 14 is you start young people on a track and they find it difficult to get off," he says. "We try to give them the skills that are specific in some respects, but not so specific that they necessarily lead to a career in a particular industry."

His warning echoes the view of Alison Wolf, a specialist in the relationship between education and work, in her report to the Government on vocational education earlier this year.

Professor Wolf advised against separate vocational and academic pathways before the age of 16, and noted an international trend towards later specialisation. Countries which retained pre-16 selection, such as Germany and the Netherlands, had seen a sharp drop in enrolments on to the vocational track, she noted.

John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT and now a senior research associate at Cambridge University, rejects the idea of either separate schools or separate streams within schools. "It is a philosophy of despair," he says.

Students are not ready to make those choices at 14, while the "invidious" distinction between academic and technical education mean one route will inevitably be valued more highly than the other, he argues.

Instead, he wants to see both academic and technical courses available to all pupils, along the lines envisaged by the Tomlinson report in 2004, which called for a 14-19 diploma to replace existing qualifications.

"There is an argument for a more practical curriculum that combines elements of vocational and academic education, but allowing institutions to choose what path children go down is absurd," he says. "Separate streams limit aspirations and expectations for individual pupils."

At Hipperholme and Lightcliffe High School in Halifax, West Yorkshire, one group of Year 9 pupils are encouraged to take subjects, including a language, that would qualify them for the English Baccalaureate, while the remainder can take baccalaureate subjects if they choose. Both groups have the option of taking vocational courses.

Deputy head Keith Cox says he feels uneasy about separating pupils into streams, although he acknowledges that some of this lies in the historical baggage surrounding selection and the perceived status of vocational courses as somehow inferior to academic ones.

"The difficulty is the word `streaming'," he says. "There is nothing wrong with students having the chance to choose a vocational route if it is appropriate, but I don't like the idea of them taking it as a whole cohort and being told: `You are a vocational student' or `You are an academic student'."

The sort of high-quality, credible courses promised by the UTCs could help to raise the status of technical education, he says, at the same time as absolving schools of the requirement to cater for every need.

"The problem lies in one institution trying to offer everything," he says. "We might have to change the way we organise 14-19 education so students have an opportunity to change institutions."

The variety of options available in Years 10 and 11 acknowledges differing aptitudes among students, but while some schools are in a position to offer a full range of courses, many are not. Perhaps the time has come to look at whether one school really fits all, and whether different needs are best catered for in different institutions. And give students the choice.

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