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Throw caution to the wind over curriculum

Ministers need to be far less conservative with their 14-19 plans, writes Kathryn Ecclestone.

OVER 20 years, changes to the vocational curriculum have been a strange combination of cautious conservatism and piecemeal, frequent tinkering. Instead of radical vision and long-lasting overhaul, policy offers just technical changes to funding and qualifications.

Current proposals for 14-19 are a case in point. At a meeting last week of the post-16 committee of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, a Department for Education and Skills civil servant, who helped draw up the Green Paper, said that the 14-19 proposals were the product of a year's thinking by a team of six DFES officials.

This closed approach reflects another peculiar feature of policy-making in our vocational education system: in a similar way, 10 enthusiastic officials in the ex-National Council for Vocational Qualifications created the first model of the advanced GNVQ. Although officials advocating the new proposals will no doubt have discussed ideas with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and perhaps with awarding bodies, this does not constitute the "evidence-based policy" that the Government claims should be a basis for education.

Of course, some of the new ideas are worthwhile. It is important for policy-makers to undermine the academicvocational divisions that have dogged post-14 education for decades, and a debate about why so many young people reject what is on offer at 14 is long overdue.

Yet, the 14-19 proposals are a lost opportunity for a radical attempt to create an appropriate curriculum that prepares all young people for an increasingly complex world. Once that is in place, a complete re-think on the best way to certificate achievements, within an overarching framework can take place.

Although it is no small task to decide which stakeholders should help do this, other European countries have a much clearer, long-term approach. In contrast, the UK government does not see groups such as teachers'

associations, awarding bodies with long experience in vocational education and training, trade unions and academic researchers, as stakeholders who might contribute to such a debate.

Instead, they opt for all-embracing consultations where everyone appears to have an equal say in a technical debate about proposals. The really radical thing would be to take a long, hard look at a post-14 curriculum that might be genuine preparation for adult life. This would require robust research evidence about progression, achievement and links between education and the economy. Instead of tinkering with qualifications, we need wider consideration of funding, teacher education and staff development. However, as the DFES official pointed out, such issues are too problematic to consider "at this stage": including them in proposals would only muddy the debate.

Thus 14-19 proposals preserve a narrow, conservative curriculum. Their publicity is steeped in negative labels that equate "less able", "non-academic", the "disaffected" and the "unmotivated" with the practical environment of FE colleges and the work-based route. Despite the insistence that "vocational" has parity of esteem with "academic", the post-14 curriculum could simply replicate an enduring snobbishness about work-related qualifications.

As long as certain qualifications are a visa for the types of higher education that lead to good jobs, the disaffected and "less academically inclined" will end up studying something different. Removing the "vocational" label and calling it "applied" does not change the cultural traditions and economic realities that lead to the divisions in the first place.

If the 14-19 proposals could broach these difficult problems, they could still be radical.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle

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