ARE TECHNICAL SCHOOLS THE ANSWER TO THE VOCATIONAL/ ACADEMIC DIVIDE?
Lord Baker of Dorking, the Tory architect of the Great Education Reform Act which established, amongst other things, the National Curriculum, testing and league tables , now believes that technical schools are the way forward. One thing this country has missed out on is good vocational schools. Several attempts have been made since the 1870s but they have generally fallen by the wayside.
The 1944 Butler Education Act had established three types of school: grammar, secondary modern and technical, but the first to disappear was the technical school, as it had, in the words of Lord Baker, become ‘infra-dig’. That vocational qualifications are important is unanswerable. The Governments new qualification, the Diploma while not a truly vocational qualification, will the Government hopes, encourage more practically oriented pupils, turned off by academic GCSE study, to stay on in school. The aim is that ordinary comprehensive schools will be able to teach Diplomas alongside the GCSE though the qualification has had a difficult birth. Lord Baker is unconvinced that comprehensives have what it takes to deliver practically oriented qualifications. He says that our secondary schools do not have the space, equipment or the qualified staff to teach welding, metal-turning, bricklaying, woodwork, plastering, electric circuitry, agriculture and horticulture and so on. If a school wants to teach Diplomas it will have to look to the local further education college for support, but this means lots of bussing for pupils, and that is disruptive.
Lord Baker’s solution, and in this he is supported by the late Lord Dearing, (indeed it was Lord Dearing’s idea in the first place) is a new type of technical school for 14-19 year-olds based on vocational skills. He points out that many people in the educational world now believe the age of transfer would be better at the age of 14 instead of 11. By that time many pupils have sorted out for themselves their interests, and know what they want to concentrate upon. These technical colleges of 500-600 students could be sponsored by a university under the Academy programme. University technical colleges would have two streams of entry: one for apprentices and one for those who want to obtain other qualifications provided by Edexcel and City & Guilds, and then move on to foundation degrees. From the start of enrolment at 14 there would be at least one day-release a week to work in local companies. It is important therefore for local companies to become actively involved and support these colleges. (One begins to wonder about the real costs of these qualifications).
Lord Baker has thought about some of the detail too it seems. Indeed two officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families are working on the project and the Tories have also offered their qualified support, should they win the next general election.
A Diploma will count for three GCSEs and students will study four more in English, maths, science and IT. At a technical college the students, Lord Baker believes, will appreciate the importance of these subjects when they are taught alongside the technical subjects. The first “university technical college”, for 14- to 19-year-olds, is to be in Birmingham and will be sponsored by Aston University. Eight other universities are in talks with the government about sponsoring more. The vocational/ academic divide rests on a basic assumption, a deeply ingrained but flawed one, that only the less able choose the vocational route. If Higher Education institutions are giving their seal of approval to this initiative, this may well serve to help to begin to change peoples’ perceptions and to change in a real sense the options and choices for young people.