Why vocational GCSEs won’t work

Making the UK curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds more ‘relevant’ will only make pupils more bored. A teacher writes.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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By comparison to the debates surrounding the funding of higher education, the UK government’s proposed overhaul of 14-19 education has warranted little critical analysis. But the education secretary Charles Clarke’s drive towards a more individuated, skills-based curriculum undermines our most basic assumptions about the purpose of schooling.

Perhaps the most fundamental proposal – and the least discussed – is the abolition of the National Curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds. The National Curriculum made the study of a wide range of subjects compulsory. Now, with the exception of English, maths, science and, strangely enough, citizenship, pupils are free to construct their own programmes of study. As one report put it, ‘Two-thirds of the timetable will now be available for vocational subjects’ (1).

The National Curriculum has come in for a great deal of criticism in the 10 years since its introduction. Pupils complain about having to study subjects they have no interest in, teachers don’t want to deal with bored youngsters unable to cope with such a range of subjects, and an overcrowded timetable makes learning purely for the love of the subject into something of a luxury. Many of these criticisms are accurate, and it is certainly the case that today’s education system has a great deal wrong with it.

However, in rejecting the National Curriculum, Charles Clarke reveals his focus to be based around the wrong problems. Instead of examining the culture of teachers working to targets or pupils being taught how to jump hoops for tests, Clarke throws out the only positive element of today’s system.

The basic assumption of the National Curriculum was that a broad-based academic education should be the norm for all youngsters. In celebrating the scrapping of a ‘one-size fits all’ curricular model, Clarke’s supporters are hoping to see a replacement that is more relevant to the needs and expectations of today’s youngsters. This will include the introduction of new ‘vocational’ GCSEs and a greater emphasis on work experience.

The concept of relevance has become something of a catchphrase in education discussions, and is central to the advocacy of vocational GCSEs. It is thought that youngsters are turned off education because school lacks relevance to their lives. Of course, as most 14-year-olds lead very dull lives, concerning themselves with the latest mobile phones, TV programmes and neighbourhood gossip, virtually everything – foreign languages, science, geography, history – could be deemed irrelevant.

This prizing of a relevant curriculum is enormously limiting. Educationalists are deciding what youngsters need to know based on the life they are expected to lead. And the assumption seems to be that, when today’s 14-year-olds grow up, they will continue to lead very dull lives. After all, learning French is irrelevant only if the expectation is you will not travel to France. The ability to engage with abstract ideas is irrelevant if you are never expected to think critically.

A relevant curriculum is also incredibly dull. There is no sense of schooling being about raising expectations or opening children’s minds to new possibilities. The tyranny of relevance prevents the contemplation of anything beyond a pupil’s most mundane daily experience.

Government ministers are misguided in thinking that youngsters are disaffected because the curriculum lacks relevance. To many teenagers the curriculum is too relevant – too much time is spent discussing bullying, relationships and recycling tin cans – and what school is lacking is excitement.

The latest proposals for a relevant curriculum focus upon relating school to the world of work. It is thought that by offering 14-year-olds the chance to study Leisure and Tourism, Mechanics, and Health and Social Care they will find new sources of inspiration for their studies. In fact, very few teenagers are committed to a particular career option. The threat of ‘work hard or you won’t get a good job’ just doesn’t wash with today’s youngsters. (Did it ever?)

But for the UK government, it is not a problem that teenagers don’t link their vocational studies to future job prospects – and this makes the motivation behind vocational GCSEs even worse.

Nobody is seriously expecting the 14-year-olds studying for their vocational GCSE in engineering to become engineers. The reforms are not motivated by the shortage of plumbers or the decline in the number of engineering students. Nor are they resulting from concerns that a skilled labour force makes England uncompetitive. Nobody seriously thinks the country is suffering from a chronic labour shortage and we need to recruit 14-year-olds into the world of work at the first available opportunity. In fact, it is probably fair to say that vocational GCSEs are nothing whatsoever to do with a vocation.

Vocational GCSEs have been introduced on the back of concerns about high rates of truancy and general disaffection, and the number of youngsters staying on in full-time education beyond the age of 16. ‘Vocational options for bored pupils’ was the apposite BBC headline (2).

These courses are to be called GCSEs (we have been told to drop the tag ‘vocational’) to make the link not with the world of training, but with the world of school. Teenagers are not expected to progress from vocational GCSEs to jobs. They are expected to work through GCSEs to Applied A-levels and on to foundation degrees. And it is hoped that by using the same name, the much sought-after, but ever-elusive, parity of esteem between vocational and academic options will now be achieved.

‘In England we have allowed vocational studies to have second class status. This has to change’, explained education minister David Miliband, promoting the new reforms to 14-19 education. It was interesting that Miliband’s attempt to criticise the ‘second class’ status of ‘vocational studies’ relied, not on expounding the worth of new vocational GCSEs, but on referring to traditionally challenging, academically rigorous professions (3).

‘Medicine is not second class, law isn’t second class, music isn’t second class, engineering isn’t second class’, he said (4), as though somehow a vocational GCSE in Health and Social Care has anything in common with the lengthy period of study and training required to become a surgeon – or implies the same kind of clear career path.

Nobody is yet sure of the exact content of the new GCSEs, but education secretary Charles Clarke has acknowledged that his aim is that few will fail these courses. For this to be the case we shall, one can safely predict, have a range of subject titles masking similar basic literacy and numeracy courses, with a much-diluted academic content, a small practical element and a large dollop of citizenship skills. The aim for teachers seems to be to keep children in school and off the streets beyond the age of 16.

These proposals represent a significant lowering both of expectations and standards. The aim seems to be to raise the self-esteem of pupils at all costs. Pupils will no longer be expected to study any subject they find difficult or boring. The subjects they do study will be impossible to fail.

Low standards are recognised in the debate around what will happen to youngsters between the age of 16 and 19. Following the A-level scandal of summer 2002, the ‘gold standard’ of UK secondary education is likely to be replaced by a Baccalaureate-style examination. But for a government concerned with keeping pass rates high, failure rates low, and as many young people in the education system as possible, this poses some problems.

As Professor Alison Wolf of the Institute of Education has pointed out, ‘It [the International Baccalaureate] is scarcely suitable for Britain because it would be too demanding for many pupils. It gives a broad education with scope for all sorts of projects in students’ chosen areas but it is very tough’ (5).

The International Baccalaureate itself sounds reasonably exciting and challenging. But the likelihood is that English youngsters will get a suitably watered-down version, with, you’ve guessed it, vocational options and work experience placements.

The discussion around the Bac touches on the huge problems in the country’s education system. Standards are low and many youngsters are disaffected. However, the latest proposals will only exacerbate both of these problems. To raise standards and encourage teenagers to continue with their education they need to be challenged, not patronised. This means making school less relevant to pupils’ daily lives.

A challenging curriculum could be inspiring, exciting and fun. If we set pupils high standards we give them something to aim for – we also tell them we think they are capable of at least aspiring to those standards. A challenging curriculum doesn’t have to be entirely academic; we could equip youngsters with high-quality practical skills grounded in the maths or science needed to complete the tasks successfully.

But until pupils are given an aspirational education that broadens their horizons and raises their expectations, let’s hope they continue to vote with their feet, as they do at present.

Joanna Williams is a former English teacher, and has written for Early Years publications and the Times Educational Supplement.

(1) BBC Education, 22 January 2003

(2) ‘Vocational options for bored pupils’, BBC News, 22 January 2003

(3) Excellence and opportunity from 14-19, David Miliband, Guardian, 21 January 2003

(4) Excellence and opportunity from 14-19, David Miliband, Guardian, 21 January 2003

(5) Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2003

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Topics Politics


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