It is a common trope: some students are just ‘not academic’ and are therefore not suited for the kind of curriculum schools have to offer. Instead, they should be able to access vocational courses.
I used to be involved in a project at a school in England to widen access to such courses – I was charged with helping create vocational diplomas in areas such as hairdressing and information technology. Diplomas never really got off the ground in the way that was intended and it may be worth reflecting on why. In England, vocational routes have often been seen as a kind of second-rate education.
Why is this? In my view, this is because vocational education is framed negatively as something you do if you are ‘not academic’ rather than as a positive choice. This argument was rehearsed again recently by Baroness Garden of the UK Liberal Democrats, only this time with the implication that a lack of options for less academic students may have caused a growth in gang involvement. It is easy to paint the Baroness and former French teacher as an elitist and with some justification: claiming that the ‘highly’ academic school curriculum is not fit for 50% of students is halfway along the argument towards educational streaming and selective schools. However, I think the issue is a little more complex than that.
I have met plenty of 14-year-old students who profess a lack of interest in the school curriculum. If you take your cue from educational progressivism and its characterisation of the pure, uncorrupted child as being a beacon of truth then it is hard not to listen and design a curriculum around their wishes. I do not subscribe to this ideology and yet, for some of these children, I suspect they may be right and that the workplace would be a better environment for them to further develop than school. This is not because I think these children have ‘not academic’ stamped somewhere into their DNA but because they have been repeatedly and systemically failed by the education system. Even then, I wonder if some would still benefit by targeted academic intervention.
Academic learning starts with learning to read. Various estimates suggest that by using the most effective classroom approaches to teaching reading and coupling these with targeted interventions for students who struggle, upwards of 95% of students can be taught how to read to within the current average range of reading ability (e.g. here and here). There will still be some young people with a range of cognitive impairments who the best teaching will never reach, but they are relatively few in number.
Unfortunately, the proportion of poor readers is currently far greater than this – some estimates place it at around 38%. If a student cannot read very well then school will confront them on a daily basis with this failure and they are unlikely to enjoy the experience. This failure will be compounded in every other subject that derives from reading i.e. the academic curriculum. It may be these students who go on to be labelled as ‘not academic’ by parents and teachers.
What is the harm? Surely we need factory workers just as we need accountants? Even if young people are selected into these roles somewhat arbitrarily, does this not still serve a valuable sorting function?
It is tempting here to make an instrumental argument. It is of the zeitgeist to claim that jobs of the future will require higher levels of education; that factory work will die out due to automation. There are complexities within this – perhaps unskilled manual work will be replaced by robots but exactly when will we no longer need plumbers? – and yet the instrumental argument is a complete red herring.
A ‘red herring’? What’s that? The concept of a ‘red herring’ is a cognitive tool we have developed to describe something that is misleading and that will send us down the wrong path. Another such tool may be ‘the boy who cried wolf’. I can drop a red herring or a boy who cried wolf into an argument without have to explain what they mean and so we can start our discussion a bit higher up than would otherwise have been possible. This is similar to the process of drawing from schema in long-term memory in order to solve far more complex problems than would be possible if each element had to be processed in limited working memory.
Essentially, an academic education provides us with a multitude of such cognitive tools or schemas of varying levels of sophistication and these enable us to solve more complex problems. We draw on such tools from the realms of literature, mathematics, science and history, to name just a few. And the notion of solving problems should be understood in the widest possible sense. We are not just talking about solving for x in an algebra problem, we could be discussing the problem of understanding how a trade deal between countries works or of appreciating a piece of art. That’s what education equips us to do, whether we go on to university or not.
Put it this way: when your fellow citizens, including plumbers and the factory workers, go out to vote, do you want then to have plenty of cognitive tools at their disposal? Because I think it is in your interests that they do.
Once we have addressed reading failure and have the basic spine of academic learning in place, I am comfortable for students to be able to select into certain high quality vocational options from the age of 14 onward. As with all learning, although I do not believe in giving students a free choice right from the outset, there is a gradual release of control that has to be in place if students are to become independent adults. But choosing to study car maintenance, for instance, should not about whether a student is ‘academic’ or not, it should be about a love of cars.