It’s not controversial to say that there is a bias towards academic pathways in many areas of society. It’s the reason FE gets less cash and less recognition than schools and universities.
But it would be unreasonable to think that even within our sector we don’t subconsciously construct a “hierarchy of esteem” relating to vocations or careers, ranking where they sit according to our own world view.
Most of us don’t have to scratch the surface too hard to uncover our own vocational bias. It’s human nature and reveals our own social, cultural and economic value system.
I have my own hierarchy of professions. This is it: 1. Doctors and nurses. 2. Everything else.
The people who are au fait with the workings of our magical skin machines and know what to do if they’re on the blink have more power than I could possibly dream of. I’d have loved to have been a doctor, but I’m a slow learner at science subjects and go queasy at poo – both of which make me a less than ideal medical student.
The nature of being an individual brings with it a proclivity for ranking activity, based on influences old and new. Having grown up with generations of family who work in construction, the view of vocationally based hierarchy always had the good-natured banter of a building site at heart. This is what I picked up: plumbers are kings of the construction trades, then electricians. Joiners and brickies are somewhere in the middle. Near the bottom of the pile are plasterers – who have “nowt to do all day but flatten walls and plan their next burglary”. Unexpectedly, architects were perceived as being the least-respected professionals by members of the construction workforce I knew – often described in derogatory terms as “Range Rover drivers”.
Of course, we are biased towards our own specialisms. We should love them like a mother and transmit that enthusiasm to our students. From my spot in the staffroom, the most significant change in bias I’ve seen in the past decade is the shift in how colleagues from vocational areas perceive English and maths.
There have always been brilliant vocational colleagues who value English and maths and who foster a collaborative relationship. However, there have also been colleagues who wore their disdain for those subjects on their sleeves. As government policy changed, so did whole-college focus – and the laissez faire attitudes from resistant lecturers had to follow suit.
It’s worth having a swift delve and reflect, to challenge our own stereotypes pertaining to subject hierarchy and the students who study in those areas.
These are difficult questions to ask. They may uncover unexpected seams of hidden prejudice, or distorted leanings towards a specific profession.
If in doubt, ask a doctor – not an architect.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat