Anthony Seldon calls for academic, technical and vocational schools

Universities should mirror this

Coalition reforms-  good on autonomy but will not  transform a failing system


Dr Anthony Seldon , Master of Wellington College, has called for a new tripartite system of education to address the   systemic educational  failure in both  our  schools and universities.

In the Sir John Cass Foundation lecture, on 8 December , the fourth in the series, titled What schools? Why  universities? Seldon  argued that  we  have lost sight of what schools and universities are for. Our schools and universities are overwhelmingly the products of 19th and 20th century thinking, and are poorly configured to face the challenges of the 21st century.   “Come Labour, come Conservative, come Coalition, the status quo just trundles on. We have even forgotten to ask such basic questions”, Seldon claimed.

While praising the Coalitions moves to create greater school autonomy, he was scathing about its attitude to sport ,  music and creativity  which  are not available or not encouraged in  most state school pupils .Though the White Papers proposals on school autonomy are to be welcomed Seldon claimed that   its proposals fall far short of delivering the transformational change  that is required.

Our schools, he said, are risking becoming like factories, an unthinking process of rote learning, with inanimate students and teachers moving on an assembly line from input to input until spat out at the end of the line clutching a letter containing exam passes in their anaesthetised hands.

His solution to this systemic failure  is a tripartite system  in schools reflected in turn in how   universities are  structured  and in what they offer.

In the medium to longer term, government should divide schools into three streams at 14, academic, technical and vocational. Each stream should be roughly a third in size. The academic stream would ensure that all pupils who have genuine academic ability and interest could be again stretched at school. The technical stream in the middle would offer a blend of an academic and vocational curriculum. The third element, the vocational stream, would consist of practical-based learning.

Universities would be heavily responsible for overseeing the curriculum in the first stream, the professions in the second stream, and  employers in the third stream.

This tripartite system echoes that which was introduced after the Second World War which failed on at least two counts: the technical stream in the middle was never fully funded, and the third stream, called secondary modern, was seen as the dumping zone for children of low ability, as opposed to a flourishing option for those whose gifts were primarily practical and not academic. In this new model exams would be held at 16 and 18. In the academic stream, students at 16 would sit the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate or MAs, standing for Mid Level Academic subjects, which would replace GCSEs. Each student would sit, on average, ten MAs.

Students in the technical stream would sit a mixture of five MA subjects, consisting of the core of 2 Sciences, Maths, English and a foreign language, as well as five ‘MT’ subjects, standing for Mid Level Technical subjects. The vocational stream would sit five ‘MTs’ and five ‘MVs’, which stand for Mid Level Vocational subjects.

At 18 students in the academic stream would all take four ‘HAs’, i.e. Higher Level Academic Subjects, which would be a reworking of old style academic A-Levels.  In addition, they would sit a Theory of Knowledge paper, which would concentrate on critical thinking and philosophy, and would deliver an extended project. As an alternative, students could sit the International Baccalaureate diploma programme, which offers six subjects, a theory of knowledge paper and an extended essay.

Turning to Universities,  Seldon said that not only were they under funded but they attempted to be all things to all people, and were the victims of too much government intervention . He said universities needed urgently  to clarify what they are doing.

The  solution he offers? The  sector needs to be split up, to match the tripartite split advocated above for schools.  This could entail either entirely separate universities, or three separate strands could be set up in existing universities.

At the apex should be academic universities, which would offer courses in ‘pure’ academic subjects, such as the natural sciences, English, the humanities and social sciences.  These would offer world class teaching and world class research. They would emulate Princeton University, arguably the world’s greatest, which has no law or medicine faculty. Melbourne University is divesting itself of its applied departments.

Technical universities are the second strand, with students receiving training in professions such as medicine, engineering, law, dentistry, business, accountancy and marketing.  These should be research components within these universities.

Technical universities would also have major graduate schools, as in the United States. Students could study a ‘pure’ subject for three years in an academic university, and then go on and study for an applied postgraduate degree in a technical university. The liberal arts programme at UCL starting in 2012 would be an ideal first degree for students before going on to study for a professional higher degree.

Vocational higher educational institutes should be the third segregated separated strand, offering one, two or even three-year courses for students joining them at a variety of different ages.

What Seldon is calling for is a radical transformation of both the structure  of  our schools and universities  but also what is taught in them  and the  way pupils and students   are examined and tested. The most recent OECD Pisa results have simply reinforced the message that  what we have  now is systemic failure, he says.

The malaise is so bad , he claims, that a systemic solution is needed, and one that academic standards in schools are, at last, taken seriously, that technical skills are regarded highly, and that young people are given vocational skills. Seldon believes that nothing less than the tripartite division, outlined here, beginning at 14, and advocated by many  others including Professor Alan Smithers and Geoff Lucas of HMC, will provide the solutions that Britain needs. He called for an urgent public debate on the future of our education system.



  1. Interesting – but not really a plan for radical systemic reform. A school system split into ‘academic’, ‘technical’ and ‘vocational’ hardly amounts to a major change – just more of the same – pidgeon holing and barriers to social mobility – but by different names. This is just tinkering with the structure of the existing school system – it is not an answer to the very real question that is asked at the beginning – just what is the purpose of our education system (what outputs and outcomes do we really want) and what is the best (however measured) way of delivering those outcomes? A system that places young people in one of three categories and then restricts what they are allowed to learn about does not strike me as an approach that is likely to result in outcomes suited to life in the 21st Century.And what about flexibility – just what would happen if, God forbid, a child actually changed their mind between the ages of 14 and 18 (because that never happens!) as to what they wanted to do in the future. Surely really radical change in the system would for starters recognise that education can happen anywhere, anytime, not just in schools and establish the means of funding and accrediting all the learning that goes on in a young person’s life.

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