I was somewhat discombobulated last month to find myself in violent agreement with Sir Michael Wilshaw not once, but twice! He was speaking at one of the excellent Institute of Education Public Debates, this one on how we might bridge the academic- vocational divide. I first found myself nodding enthusiastically at his assessment of the idea that all children should follow the EBacc as ‘bonkers’.
However, it was his comment that successive policy makers have failed to get vocational qualifications right because they were ‘designed to be taken by other people’s children’ that really resonated. Not for the first time I was struck by the disconnect between the educational experiences of the vast majority of us debating the topic, and the educational experiences of those we were discussing.
There was dismay, disbelief, but also incomprehension amongst the panel at the idea that 50% of pupils are leaving school without ‘the basics’ of a pass in English and maths. In fact, it is worse than that. If you take, as Ministers are encouraging us to do, a level 5 or above as a ‘strong pass’ that provides the passport to move on to Level 3 qualifications, then in 2017 just 39% achieved this level in English and maths.
Not ‘succeeding’ at GCSE, not going on to study A levels, is the experience for the majority of young people in our schools today.
Yet this experience is so alien to the policy makers, Ministers and civil servants, not to mention those of us at the Debate, that we struggle to understand and accept it. Those of us who have sailed through GCSEs or O levels, taken A levels and gone on to University may find it hard to truly empathise with those who have a different experience. There is a tendency is to assume that something has gone wrong, that if these young people only tried harder or had been taught better they too would be getting top grades in their GCSEs. Even when we know that the grade boundaries are norm referenced to ensure that a certain proportion fail, and that the drive for ‘higher standards’ has pre-determined an increase in the number failing, still we insist that ‘something must be done’ to get more young people to pass. Rarely do we consider what a level 3 or 4 in English or maths tell us about what a young person can do, as well as what they cannot do, or how well do the skills that are required at GCSE map across to those required in the world of work. The narrative is one of failure.
This inability to fully understand the position of these youngsters reaching 16 without five ‘good’ GSCEs then affects the discussion about vocational education. Rather than looking to ensure that vocational options post 16 offer high quality routes for pupils that haven’t secured high GCSE grades, the debate quickly turns to making vocational options more attractive to the most academically able, in other words, to people like us, and like our own children.
I understand that educationalists might feel uncomfortable at recommending for other people’s children that they wouldn’t want for their own – a point addressed by former Eton Headmaster Tony Little when he suggested that all pupils be required to study a vocational subject alongside an A level. And those involved in developing and delivering vocational qualification might also want to avoid any suggestion that these qualifications are ‘second best’.
And yet, by insisting that vocational qualifications should be ‘good enough for our own children’ we risk excluding the young people who might benefit the most. Controversially I would like to suggest that we should worry less about creating a different and attractive option for young people with the academic ability to study A levels. Let’s instead think what we’re offering to our young people who don’t have the grade 6s and 7s to go confidently on to the A level route. Let’s focus on that large number of pupils, perhaps even a majority, who in future will be reaching 16 with a clutch of 3s, 4s, and 5s. Young people who have been hard working and motivated but don’t end up in the top 30-40% of the population at 16. And let’s ensure that this group have access to relevant, challenging and meaningful vocational qualifications as a route to skilled employment, higher and degree level apprenticeships, and higher technical education, including technical degrees.
Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies
Follow her on Twitter @Ali_Critchley
To view the Institute of Education Public Debates on the academic/vocational divide and to find out about their forthcoming programme see the UCL website.