Vocational education has been making headlines again recently. In March, the government announced that 13,000 courses currently running nationwide would be replaced with 15 vocational routes in specific career areas: so-called T levels.
We have come to call this “vocational”, as opposed to “academic”, education. Some students, we are told, suit vocational options better than academic routes. For many, the word vocation simply means hair and beauty rather than history, or construction rather than Classics.
What I want to call into question is not this kind of education per se, but the way we talk about it. I think that there’s more to the concept of vocation than job-training, and it’s not just for some students: it’s for everybody.
The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare – “to call” – and suggests work that is special and particular to you, not just a training route to a job. Vocation is about work in which you flourish and become the best version of yourself.
Growing up, it was a loaded world in our house: mum was a nurse and dad was a priest, both driven by a deep sense of vocation; of being called to their work. Neither of them put pressure on me or my sister to gain status or money, but they did hope we would contribute something particular to the world, finding a niche we could fill. This was the way to fulfilment.
A vocation, then, is two things: it is work in which you in particular can contribute something, and it also leads to personal fulfilment and happiness; it is self-realisation. These are noble aims for education, and they are aims we should have for all our students, not just some.
This prompts two important questions: first, could an academic education be vocational in that sense, and lead to self-realisation? And second, does so-called vocational education achieve this goal, leading students to work that is particular to them and makes them fulfilled?
The distinction that has commonly been made between academic and vocational education suggests that academic routes cannot be vocational. This is because academic routes do not (supposedly) lead directly towards a line of work. Yet there are many academic routes doing just that. Degrees in law and medicine, offered at even the most academic institutions, fit that bill. If vocational education must lead towards a career, then those subjects are no less vocational than agriculture or accounting.
Seeking a niche
Why do we use the term vocational when talking about courses like retail or construction? Is it merely a euphemistic tag, a piece of inverse snobbery that sounds better to some than “work training”?
And what about those academic subjects that don’t lead to a job? Are we to believe that Mary Beard doesn’t have a vocation to lecture in Classics, or that Francis Collins didn’t have a vocation to sequence the human genome? If vocation is about finding a niche and seeking fulfilment, why couldn’t an overtly academic route be vocational?
Part of my job is to mentor our most academically passionate students. I frequently get to work with someone who has an all-consuming passion for an academic discipline. It’s great to guide someone like that, because you feel so strongly that they have discovered something of who they are and what they are going to be.
So academic education can be vocational. Now it’s time to look to the other side of the deal: is vocational education truly vocational? Does it allow students to find a niche; to discover work that is particular to them; to seek fulfilment?
It seems there is no intrinsic reason why an education that prepares someone for work should be less fulfilling than a more purely academic route. There is no reason why someone might not find real satisfaction at completing a construction project or perfecting a difficult technique of hairstyling. Just because vocational options lead to jobs, that doesn’t make them less fulfilling.
A significant concern raised by Roger Marples, a philosopher of education and the author of The Aims of Education, is that too often vocational education fails to raise the expectations of students. The courses on offer might extend no further than ways of life already known to the student: careers with which they are familiar, not ways of life that are new. Professional training frequently underlines current class and income divides – and worse, Marples says, it encourages students to “accept” this “with equanimity”. Rather than being options that lead to self-realisation, these choices could limit students’ ambitions.
It is for this reason that educationalist Michael Young advocates a broad academic curriculum for all. He argues that enabling students from all walks of life to access “powerful knowledge” ensures they won’t be confined by their background or their own imagination, and opportunities will be opened up to them.
But will all kinds of options present themselves with a broad academic curriculum? John Badley, the founder of Bedales School, said that education was of “head, hand and heart”, which should all be valued on a school curriculum. It’s therefore perfectly normal for my students to cover Socrates and sheep-shearing during the same school day.
The Latin verb educare, from which we get education, means “to draw out”. Education should draw all our students out of their own expectations of themselves, out of their own experiences, and out of the expectations made of them through their background. It should allow them to seek work they feel drawn to. Whether this is marketing or history, classics or carpentry is all well and good, but only if it does not simply underline the expectations the student formed at home. It should allow them to flourish.
All students deserve this fulfilment, not just some. That may come from technical education or it may be academic – perhaps the two are less distinct than we sometimes think. But let’s make flourishing the aim for all our students, and let’s always be asking ourselves whether the courses we offer live up to that challenge.
Clare Jarmy is Head of Academic Enrichment and Oxbridge, as well as head of religious studies and philosophy at Bedales School. She writes on philosophical issues in education and on philosophy of religion