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The academic and the vocational… separating the wheat from the chaff?

August 26, 2012

‘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.

Animal laborans

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.)

Homo faber

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2012 9:35 am

    in the best places,the academic and the vocational would have those lines blur as far as they can…the wonderful thing about life is the more you roll your sleeves up ,even with the most *practical* work,you acquire an academic dimension,without even realizing it…and vise versa.

  2. Rab permalink*
    August 27, 2012 11:29 am

    Hi Mary,

    Something Marx said sticks with me: What distinguishes human endeavour from that of the animals? ‘A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.’

    The hand and head are allies. Not antagonists.

  3. August 28, 2012 10:52 am

    Speaking from the narrow perspective of a parent of a 15 yr old boy, I agree the academic v vocational distinction is a pile of class inflected bollix. The key distinction seems to me to be between those that can actually concentrate on the fucking task at hand rather than Spotify, Facebook or instant Messaging with your mates….

    I comfort myself that this reaction on my part is just a tabloidesque version of a revulsion at a lack of application, a lack of ’craft’ in Sennett’s terms. Well, that’s my line anyway, and I’m sticking too it.

  4. Rab permalink*
    August 30, 2012 8:04 am

    It’s a good line; stick to it.

    Thing is once you institutionalise the idea that some people are academic and others vocational, it’s very hard not to internalise the notion. But it’s just a lot of balls.

    The problem this presents for me is this (…and it’s a professional problem): if the idea of academic integrity is balls then what am I supposed to do? Apparently I’m an academic…

  5. August 30, 2012 8:36 pm

    “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. ”

    Ok, I recognise that but the historical fact of the matter is that Britain’s ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ was accompanied by the notion that making things is a rather vulgar activity and consequently any education designed to train people to this end must be too. While you disagree with those who think a distinction should be made in the structure of secondary education in relation to the academic and the practical, I hope you’re not too offended if I suggest that, like them, you’ve inherited this very British attitude to vocational education.

  6. Rab permalink*
    August 31, 2012 6:42 am

    Welcome David,
    Thanks for the comment. To be clear, I think that the distinction between vocational and academic is utterly manufactured. At the same time (and as things stand) I’d rather the ‘egalitarian polish’ than the assumption that the vocational is some how ‘less than’ the academic. But I think it’s undeniable that vocational qualifications are popularly held in lower esteem. I wouldn’t wish that. I’d rather we rethought education in ways that did away for the need to distinguish. I’d prefer something more wholistic, human – that talks account of the fact that as a necessity we humans think and act, that indeed, thinking is not something separate from acting/doing but is something that we do, and therefore in a every sense vocational.

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