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Tristram Hunt: 'There is a Berlin Wall that exists between the vocational and academic'


Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt writes: 

In October 1940, Herwald Ramsbotham, then president of the Board of Education, called a meeting in his office at the Branksome Dene Hotel in Bournemouth – where the Board had temporarily located to escape the Blitz.

His task was to develop nothing less than the total reconstruction of education in England and Wales; to establish, in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, “a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few, shall be far more widely shared by the man and youth of the nation as a whole”.

This summer will mark the seventieth anniversary of that meeting’s eventual outcome – Rab Butler’s celebrated 1944 Education Act. With the introduction of free schooling for all to 15 and the massive expansion of education to the working classes that ensued, there can be little argument that it represents a pivotal progressive moment in our country’s educational history.

However, in some ways the act can be seen as a victory from which progressive education has yet to recover. Because the truth is that the middle plank of Butler’s tripartite system, the Technical School route, never fully emerged.  Indeed, so complete was our abandonment of technical rigour and our embrace of a service-based consumer economy, that by 1962 there were more Wimpey Burger Bars in the UK than institutions dedicated to nurturing vocational excellence.

From this stems the real Berlin Wall in English education, the truly corrosive divide that exists between vocational and academic routes.

We have simply never made vocational education a pressing priority with the result that a ‘forgotten fifty per cent’ of young people who do not pursue the traditional school-based route to higher education, have always lacked a coherent and clearly signposted pathway to success.

To tackle this historic failing of English education, we urgently need to raise standards in vocational education. Therefore, I am delighted to welcome the third and final report from our independent Skills Taskforce, chaired by Professor Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education. The first two reports, on apprenticeships and further education respectively, were published last autumn. And now the taskforce has delivered a series of recommendations on that most vital of learning landscapes: 14-19.

Giving local businesses a role in brokering high-quality independent careers advice; a new statutory duty for schools and colleges to collaborate and share resources; making an element of per-pupil funding conditional on securing the next stage of post-16 education or training – the report contains many bold recommendations. However, arguably the most radical proposal is for Labour to develop a ‘National Baccalaureate’ – a qualifications framework for all upper secondary earners.

Based on a four-part common core, the National Baccalaureate would mean that in addition to their existing A-level or high-quality vocational qualification choices, all learners would study English and maths to 18; would undertake an extended study or project; and would develop their character, resilience and employability skills through a tailored personal development programme.

The Labour Party has absolutely no desire to prescribe yet more curriculum tinkering – we have seen far too much of that over the last four years. What is more, the core learning component of the National Baccalaureate would be made up entirely from existing qualifications, such as A-levels and high-quality vocational courses.

Nevertheless, the need to encourage a broad and more balanced approach to 14-19 education is clear.

This is particularly important when it comes to English and maths, those most fundamental of 21st-century skills. The OECD’s report on adult skill levels last October revealed the shocking fact that England, almost uniquely, has poorer literacy and numeracy amongst younger people than the older generations. Moreover, only 20 per cent of our young people take part in maths beyond level two. In places like Hong Kong and Germany, the figure is over 90 per cent, while even in Scotland it is as high as 48 per cent. This cannot continue: we need to make sure that all young people study maths and English to 18 in a way that is both rigorous and relevant.

Furthermore, it is high time we rejected the false choice between taking attainment seriously and nurturing the character of our young people. As many employers have pointed out, outstanding qualifications, on their own, offer no guarantee that a young person possesses the wider aptitudes required by the world of work or further learning.  We need to inculcate both.

At this stage, these proposals are very much ‘design principles’ for a broad overall framework – one that the Labour Party consults thoroughly with teachers, leaders and educationalists. But our starting point, which this document clearly sets out, is that we should develop a coherent strategy for all learners in the 14-19 space, one that binds different routes to success together in a rigorous common framework.

Undeniably, that is a challenging aspiration. But if we achieve it, we can break down the cultural barriers between vocational and academic pathways, deliver educational excellence for the forgotten fifty per cent and correct the historic failing of the post-Butler English education system. That has to be a prize worth far-reaching reform.

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