People often talk of vocational and academic education as mutually exclusive choices. You have to pick a “side”, stick to it and follow that choice through. Some even claim that certain students are more suited to one route than the other.
Thankfully, this attitude is less prevalent than it once was. There are a number of schools that now mix vocational and academic qualifications at key stage 4, while in the sixth form, students are increasingly getting a better choice of options. The planned introduction of a technical – or “T level” – qualification, and the rebranding of vocational courses that it represents, should help.
Further along the path
Schools in Kent are perhaps further along this path than others. Currently, 27 secondary schools in the county are offering the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP) to their Year 12 students. The programme was created to provide a demanding but flexible qualification that combines the academic and the vocational, with the teaching of the skills “necessary for success in work”.
“We felt that, for our students, A levels were too restrictive and did not allow them to develop certain essential skills,” explains Kate Greig, headteacher at King Ethelbert’s School in Birchington. “These skills may find themselves called ‘soft skills’ but they are actually the key qualities needed for higher education and for work: team work, problem solving, creative thinking, time management, the capacity to think and talk about ethical dilemmas. We felt that the two different strands of learning – academic and vocational – were needed to give the students the breadth and balance they need.”
Such a mix could have been provided through existing vocational and academic qualifications but, logistically, that can be difficult. Though there are examples where this has been possible – Tes secondary school of the year, Stanley Park High School, in Sutton, has motor workshops and professional kitchens as well as standard classrooms for its GCSE students – providing the staff and facilities to do both can be a stretch too far, particularly for smaller sixth forms offering limited A-level courses.
That’s one of the reasons many of Kent’s schools have turned to the IBCP. Sian Carr, headteacher of The Skinners’ Kent Academy, in Tunbridge Wells, says that her school “has a very small sixth form with only 20 students of a great range of ability”.
“We thought this option was cost-effective, which may come as a surprise.”
All students in the IBCP programme study at least two subjects from the IB Diploma plus the CP core, which consists of four components: personal and professional skills, service learning, language development and reflective projects. Students also undertake career-related studies provided by partners, such as BTEC.
So at Westminster Academy, in London, another school that has adopted the IBCP, a student that wants to go into engineering is studying IB maths and engineering and a BTEC extended diploma in applied science. The reflective project is “To what extent is positive discrimination justified to encourage more women to take up engineering careers?” and their service learning is running a Year 7 science, technology, engineering and maths club.
Obviously, this represents a mindset shift for students who may be more comfortable with academic qualifications than vocational courses. Saima Rana, headteacher at Westminster Academy, admits that it was difficult initially but student buy-in was earned quickly.
“Initially, some felt it was inferior to the IB Diploma. However, prioritising extra-curricular opportunities (for example, all IBCP students have the opportunity to take part in a six-week, paid internship with a leading UK employer over the summer holidays) has cancelled this out,” she says.
Carr also admits to some challenges, mainly the perception of the qualification from employers and parents.
“There are still some issues about the understanding of the credential because the course is so new, but that will change, as it has with the Diploma Programme,” she explains. “Also, there is the issue of parental understanding: the fear of the unknown. It isn’t A level, which is what they know, but attitudes are changing as we try to educate pupils and parents.”
With the ongoing changes to GCSE already confusing parents, that adaptation period may be a long one. But Greig is optimistic that parents and employers will come to understand why the schools have taken the decision for their students.
“The vocational and academic element can be tailored to suit the cohort. BTECs can be at certificate or extended level and diplomas at higher or standard: this is one of the major advantages of the course,” she says. “Soon, we will have 150-200 students in our sixth form all studying IBCP. ‘
Carr adds that the main signal that finding a mix of vocational and academic qualifications is the correct path – through the IBCP or otherwise – is that it seems to be what students want from their college education.
Jocelyn Rebera, head of sixth form and IB coordinator at King Ethelbert School, says that attainment has been impacted positively: “Because the IBCP is a multi-faceted curriculum choice, students are able to rely on skills developed in their vocational learning to enhance their studies in their IB subjects.
“In 2015-2016, using the 2017 Ucas tariff entry, on average our pupils achieved more than 50 Ucas points above their predicted grades,” she adds.
Judging by these experiences, and combined with what seems a positive push towards vocational studies from government, it seems likely that the routes schools can take to provide a mix of vocational and academic qualifications will grow. How schools will react to that, we shall have to wait and see.
Jon Severs is commissioning editor of Tes. He tweets @Jon_Severs