The academic and the vocational… separating the wheat from the chaff?
‘Why don’t we separate the academic kids from those who are more vocationally inclined?’ I hear you ask.
Now forgive me for putting words into your mouth, especially if they have never crossed your mind, but you’ll concede that distinguishing the academic from the vocational is a popular topic of conversation these days, not least among parents. Often I find that you can read it as polite code for: GET MY GIFTED OFF-SPRING AWAY FROM ALL THOSE GORMLESS CHAVS!
Some try to dignify it by pretending that they want the best for all children. They protest that all they are proposing is that different types of schooling and education meet the particular needs of individual children. Therefore it makes sense that grammar schools and higher education should be reserved for the academically inclined, while secondary schools and further education colleges – or something equating to the old polytechnics – should cater for those who are referred to as being more ‘hands on’ or vocationally orientated.
On occasions this thinking is given an egalitarian polish with the insistence that vocational qualifications should be held in the same esteem as the academic. But what I find curious about all of this is the assumption that people are either academically inclined or vocational in their orientation. Apparently it is inconceivable that people could be both… or in my case neither, since I’ll confess that I showed no aptitude nor interest in academic or vocational studies as a school boy.
I understand that some pupils and students perform better in education than others, and there may be a variety of different reasons for this – relative attention, confidence and socialisation – but I doubt that variations in educational achievement can be sensibly mapped onto a fairly arbitrary division between the academic and the vocational. This is a difference we have manufactured and institutionalised.
There is no gene that I am aware of that predisposes some people to academic qualifications and generously remunerated work and others to a vocational education and relatively lower pay. I suspect that the insistence on a rigid separation of the academic kids from the vocationally inclined has more to do with the maintenance of class distinctions from one generation to the next than anything inherent in pupils themselves.
If the naturalness of such a division is questionable, then its efficacy today must be disputable also. Doesn’t a world that distinguishes between academic and vocational routes through education belong to the age of heavy industry and manufacturing, when work was divided between manual labourers and those who managed them? Hasn’t the world changed with the ‘digital revolution, and the rise of the knowledge economy and creative industries? Or maybe it hasn’t. Perhaps, despite technological advances, we remain divided into what Richard Sennett refers to in his book The Craftsman, as animal laborans and homo faber. The former, the beasts of burden, condemned to drudgery and routine; the latter their social superiors whose job it is to stand as the ‘judge of material labour and practice’ without ever partaking in it.
There is a curious disconnect between political rhetoric and policy at the moment. On the one hand, we have been lead to believe for sometime that national economic success depends upon producing a highly skilled, educated workforce. The implication here, it seems to me, is that if we produce more graduates, national prosperity will follow. I’m not entirely sure that it’s as simple as that. But I’m equally uncertain about what the government is doing on the other hand. At the moment education policies such as the abolition of the EMA, raising of fees and the ham-fisted tackling of grade inflation looks an attempt to discourage large numbers of young people from pursuing an education that, let’s face it, one way or another is going to cost the state. It has the added effect of further institutionalising elitism in education - animal laborans and homo faber, again.
After all, what is the point in spending money on educating people for menial, precarious work where technological changes mean an endless and restless revising of skillsets every three or four years? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here.)
It’s a pretty miserable and inegalitarian vision of the future. But I always think that if you want a glimpse of the world to come look at education policy. And at the moment the Tories are undertaking a rigorous programme in separating the wheat from the chaff, as they would see it.
Education that includes assessment will always discriminate. It has to. But does it need to be so socially divisive? Our aptitudes and interests as pupils, students, workers and citizens may lie in different areas. We develop at different rates; our enthusiasms and talents may change over time. If we really want to harness our full human potential, wouldn’t you think that encouraging comprehensive and continuous forms of education would be the order of the day? What we have at the moment is an increasingly punitive, economically deterministic and divisive education system, geared towards reproducing class inequalities.