Strike the right balance to let us progress

12th November 2010 at 00:00

A few weeks ago I visited my old secondary school, and was struck by its excellence. I was most struck by its change of name from technical high school to grammar school. Odd, because it had always been a grammar school (it is in part of the country that still has the 11-plus) but it didn't use the name.

While FE colleges are happy to be known as hubs of vocational education, it troubles me that a school should conceal its roots in technical education in favour of a more academic label. Not that the elevation of academia over the practical is anything new. Recently, education secretary Michael Gove rightly pointed out that our failure to give vocational learning the status it deserves goes back a long way.

To compete in a global economy, we have to move beyond the old-fashioned idea of some people getting a solely academic education while others do courses in plumbing or hairdressing. We can no longer afford to divide the world quite so neatly into academic and vocational buckets, because in the future we will need thinkers who can act and practitioners who can think. These are the attributes that cannot be commoditised and outsourced.

We must leave the age-old academic-vocational class divide behind us. This will require our education system to provide practical and vocational learning that goes well beyond the traditional manual trades. Creative media design, ICT, hospitality management and engineering all engage the brain in a mix of academic and practical skills that can be applied in the real world.

The last government attempted to redress the imbalance in esteem attached to practical learning by giving vocational qualifications equivalence in the league tables. It resulted in many more vocational courses being offered in schools between the ages of 14 and 16, and all the teachers I have spoken to believe that has led to the active engagement of more young people in their education than ever.

But the system of league table equivalence for vocational qualifications is not transparent. As writer Camilla Cavendish pointed out recently in The Times, very few parents realise that the number of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE (or equivalent) includes vocational qualifications. And it imposes a one-size-fits all approach by trying to shoehorn different qualifications into a points system that compares apples with pears. Vocational and practical qualifications are not the same as academic ones and we should celebrate their difference. But at the same time, we have to reject any system that values academic learning but ignores practical, vocational learning.

Mr Gove's idea to create an English baccalaureate is a good one, but it does not acknowledge that academic learning alone will not fully equip young people for the future. We cannot simply rely on an academic baccalaureate; we should celebrate a more diverse set of qualifications that combines academic and practical, vocational learning, so pupils have the opportunity apply themselves to real problems.

Such a baccalaureate would retain an academic core but would give pupils the option to diversify - to study engineering, construction, ICT or business. It would be rigorous and respected by universities and employers alike. And it might just, for the first time in our history, lead to an education system where the very best schools and colleges strive to provide both the academic and the practical skills that our country and our young people need.

Mr Gove has made positive noises about ensuring that people who show what they know through what they can do are valued as highly as those who show what they know through what they can talk or write about. If the Government and the FE sector get this balance right, we will help even more young people make the progress that they deserve.

Rod Bristow is president of Pearson UK.

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