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The past few weeks have seen the publication of a number of reports in the related and overlapping but distinct fields of lifelong learning, adult education, Further Education and vocational education. As readers of RSA blogs will already be aware, my colleague at the RSA, Mark Londesborough, has edited, in partnership with the Further Education Trust for Leadership, an excellent and thought-provoking collection of essays, Possibility Thinking: reimagining the future of Further Education and Skills, Deirdre Hughes and Sally-Anne Barnes of the University of Warwick Institute for Employment Research have published an important report, Adult Education: too important to be left to chance, for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education, and David Sainsbury and his team have published their report on the future of technical education, Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, which has been welcomed by ministers, even if any promise to support Sainsbury’s reforms is, to say the least, qualified.

This level of interest in these too often forgotten sectors and areas of educational endeavour is welcome and runs concurrently with my own work in drafting a new paper in the RSA’s Power to Create series on the future of lifelong learning, which will be published in the autumn, and which is prefaced by an article in the current RSA Journal which sets out some of my initial thinking. At the core of the analysis I offer is a career-long belief that lifelong learning is not something that follows schooling, often as a corrective to its perceived or actual failures, but rather that schooling is a critical and statutory juncture on every individual’s lifelong learning journey. Whatever the qualifications outcomes - and these are vital - a schooling that does not give us the power to create, to learn, un-learn and re-learn, to have an appetite for new learning and the capacity and desire for new learning has failed us - not at 16 or 18, but for a lifetime.

In this post, I want to focus on one theme that will feature strongly in my own paper, how we regard different types of learning. As such, and with apologies to the authors of the other reports and collections cited above, I want to focus on Sainsbury. He and his colleagues, are absolutely right in what for me are their three key observations: (1) that the current chaotic range of routes and qualifications is near impossible to navigate both for learners and employers; (2) that too many vocational qualifications are, well, insufficiently vocational and lead, at best, to the margins of particular job markets rather than into careers; (3) that careers education and guidance needs a complete overhaul. In suggesting a more focused set of work and college routes across fifteen occupation areas, it offers a clearer set of route ways than offered thus far, and one that post-16 and adult learners have a chance of navigating.

A missed trick and an old problem?

Sainsbury’s is a meticulous, timely and reasonably comprehensive piece of work but you’d be right to detect just a smidgeon of ‘faint praise’ in my tone; why? Because I fear that it misses a trick and contributes to a problem.

The missed trick is the perennial one about the status of this area of learning (and the areas of employment that it leads to) in our national mindset - that the academic and vocational are separate planets, and that one is more highly regarded than the other. Sainsbury acknowledges this but little more, and the decision to rebrand ‘vocational’ learning as ‘technical’ learning hardly moves us forward. Sainsbury, effectively, accepts the status ‘status quo’ and seeks to fix the problem of poor provision within this paradigm. We deserve and should expect more; indeed, as I shall argue later, the language of ‘technical’ over ‘vocational’ may further ghettoize this area of learning.

The problem is that in not addressing this status quo, and by suggesting that at 16 young people choose between the academic and the vocational, Sainsbury reinforces the distinction, even with the bridging mechanisms that he argues should be created between the two. Of course, this is better than casting the divide at 11 (as with the Grammar-Secondary Modern model) or at 14 (as there is a tendency for Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges to do) but the central reality remains the same: as long as the academic domain is ascribed a higher social and cultural status than the vocational (sorry, technical), the technical curriculum is one that young people are more likely to fall onto or ‘end up on’ than choose.  

Back to school?

Critical to grasping this nettle, is the need to acknowledge that the seeds of this divide run deep and are reinforced, if not sown, during the years of compulsory schooling. As I have grown tired of remarking, as long as we “throw the naughty boys a car engine” as a sop to their unruly behaviour at Key Stage 4 and before, we’ll never generate the huge numbers of engineers and scientists that, as a modern society and competitive economy, we need. And posh voices on Radio 4 arguing that (1) too many young people are going to university today, and (2) an apprenticeship is just as valuable as a degree won’t cut it; why? Because you can bet your bottom dollar that the speaker is degree educated, and that their children are likely to be too. Unfortunately, the message, whatever the truth in it, is about as believable as Jamie Redknapp in a Marks and Spencer suit; fundamentally the discussion is about other people’s children, ‘ordinary’ people as our new Prime Minister might call them.

So, how might we move forward? How might we rebalance the academic-technical divide? Well, we have some idea of how not to:

  • Encouraging students who are failing or troublesome in ‘mainstream’ classrooms to take up work related ‘alternative’ activities, as with the disapplication model of the 1990s risks institutionalizing the lowly status of anything deemed ‘vocational’ or ‘technical’;
  • Giving quasi-vocational qualifications points in school league tables has been tried, but failed partly because schools that championed such courses were seen as either (a) gaming the system, or (b) offering an insufficiently academic curriculum (not least by middle class parents);
  • Tomlinson’s more holistic proposal of remodeling 16-19 qualifications within a shared academic and vocational diploma framework, as proposed over a decade ago, fell at the same brook as earlier attempts to reform the ‘gold standard’ of A level, and was sabotaged in dry-dock by Ruth Kelly’s ill-considered attempt to introduce the reforms in exactly the way that Tomlinson had argued against;
  • Drawing all manner of courses and programmes into an omnipotent (or is that omni-impotent?) GGSE framework (think about how we now deliver a host of subjects in the art, creativity, technology, science and craft fields at Key Stage 4) simply risks robbing these disciplines of their essence - technology without making, science with far too little experimentation and art in 45 minutes.


We need to start in another place, and, as I argued as a Parliamentary Candidate at the 2015 General Election in a blog for CASE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, this place should be at the heart, not on the margins, of the secondary curriculum; 11 or 14 are too early to make employment choices or to enter vocational routes, but they are emphatically not too early to taste genuine work-related learning. In this context, and mindful of the fact that we have just seen the appointment of Justine Greening as the new Secretary of State for Education, I repeat three suggestions that I made in the CASE piece.

First, all secondary schools should be inspected not just on curriculum rigour but on curricular breadth. Schools might be encouraged to be creative in how they demonstrate this breadth but demonstrate it, they must. Thus, any school that does not open up opportunities that ensure an entitlement for every student to participate in high quality work related learning (and, for that matter, learning programmes focused on the development of creativity, curiosity and effective citizenship) should not be able to achieve 'outstanding' status because of the narrowness of its curricular offer. A programme composed of ten GCSEs is not a broad one - I write as a former GCSE Chief Examiner - but a curriculum that includes an excellent professional, technical and vocational component, access to a range of STEM subjects for all, a community service element, good quality citizenship education and a real exposure to sport, the arts and creativity is.

Second, and at the same time, we should re-conceptualise vocational education, not as narrowly ‘technical’ education in the style of Sainsbury (for those who are “good with their hands”) but as professional and vocational in the true sense of the word; this is the 'nudge' to the middle classes that such learning is something for their children to seek out rather than to walk away from. Degrees in Law, Medicine, Marketing and Finance are profoundly vocational in nature; how about opening up learning in these spheres in our schools - taster programmes, summer internships, curriculum modules, delivered in partnership with the professions concerned? Anybody who wants to see an example of such work would be wise to look at the Citizenship Foundation's excellent and long-standing Lawyers in Schools programme which I helped to develop in nine years as that charity’s CEO - for it constitutes brilliant vocational (sorry, professional) education, even if its aim is to educate all young people about the law more broadly. What would equivalent programmes in the STEM subjects look like, and how do we take those that already exist to scale? What about every secondary school having an “engineer in residence” and, of course, a poet and an artist?

Third, let's do all of this while thinking not about parity but about complementariness. It should never have mattered whether a course in hairdressing or bricklaying or business studies is equal in status to one in geography or history or French. It does matter that every young person experiences a curriculum shot through with a strong dose of high quality professional and vocational education and genuine exposure to the STEM agenda, whether the outcome is a career in carpentry or surveying, engineering or computer science, medicine or law.

A message for the new Secretary of State for Education?

Any secondary (and, arguably, primary) education that does not have a professional and vocational component is simply too narrow. Any education system that sees vocational activity as second class is second class itself. Any Secretary of State that allows vocational or technical qualifications to be shoved out of performance tables and off funding frameworks because s/he is concerned about ‘standards’ and the risk that schools, colleges and training providers will use such courses to ‘game’ the system has forgotten a key purpose of the system itself: the future employability of the young people in its ranks. And any education system that does all of this can’t hope to create the generation of engineers and scientists, and the nation of lifelong and life-wide learners and engaged, creative citizens on which our future depends.

And, of course, this would lay exactly the foundations that the kind of clear, focused framework proposed by Sainsbury needs if it is to transform lives rather than reproduce existing inequalities and snobberies. If young people (and adult learners seeking to enhance their employability opportunities) are to aspire to, rather than settle for, a technical (make that, professional) route at 16 or beyond, these foundations need to be set much earlier, during the years of statutory schooling.  And they need to be underpinned by a love for, and a confidence about, learning itself. That would be a fine legacy for a new Secretary of State for Education to leave, even if she’s not thinking about leaving just yet.


Dr. Tony Breslin is an RSA Fellow and an Associate in the Creative Learning and Development Team. He is a teacher by profession, Chair of the awarding organisation Industry Qualifications, Director of the consultancy Breslin Public Policy Limited and founder of the campaign, He is Chair of Governors at Bushey and Oxhey Infant School in Hertfordshire and Chair of Academy Council, Oasis Academy, Enfield.


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