Neither Michael Gove’s narrow academicism or Tristram Hunt’s ‘Two Nation’ Labour
by Martin Allen
Vocational education was officially established to improve work and employment skills, but few of the vocational courses developed in schools and colleges after the collapse of industrial apprenticeships in the 1970s have offered real opportunities for young people in the labour market. Instead, a succession of new qualifications were introduced, lasted a few years and were then discarded in favour of new ones. Some of the more high profile, such as the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) claimed to provide real alternatives to A-levels. Others were expensive white elephants like the specialist diplomas championed by New Labour. The most durable have been the BTEC awards.
Even though higher level vocational qualifications have provided opportunities for some young people to enter HE, the research evidence has continued to show schools have used vocational pathways for the ‘less-academic’. Though the more student-friendly pedagogy and less hierarchical classroom relationships associated with the new qualifications were said to reflect the modern workplace and new types of ‘soft skills’ needed across the growing service sector, they also provided ways for teachers and lecturers to gentle these students along a low status route! More recently, the standing of vocational qualifications has been reduced further as some schools entered entire cohorts for vocational ‘equivalents’ to improve their standing in GCSE league tables.
Following recommendations in the Wolf Report, Michael Gove streamlined the number of vocational courses available at 14, but also demanded more ‘rigour’. By this he meant that to qualify as one of the eight subjects on which new school league tables would be formulated, a vocational qualification had to follow certain criteria, could not count as more than one GCSE and had to have more external assessment. Wolf had also recommended that vocational courses should be restricted to 20% of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, something opposed by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker who has continued to press ahead with University Technical Colleges (UTCs) offering vocational specialisms.
But Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach –despite the defeat of his EBacc, has been equally unsatisfactory as GCSE syllabuses have been narrowed and antiquated assessment methods reintroduced. English and history teachers have led campaigns and won concessions on some of the worst aspects of the new courses. Even though Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt has attacked the ‘backwardness’ of Gove’s deluded grammar school approach, he has reaffirmed the Labour Party’s commitment to restoring the vocational route for the ‘forgotten 50%’ not going onto university, Labour will establish a Technical Baccalaureate and open more UTCs. (‘Two Nation’ Labour rather than ‘One’)
It’s true that countries like Germany have developed successful vocational and technical routes as well as apprenticeships linked to employment opportunities but these courses have included a much larger general core –in Germany there is now much greater enthusiasm for attending comprehensive schools. Current analysis of the occupational structure also shows the continued disappearance of many of the middle ‘technical’ jobs which vocational qualifications are associated with –also significant, regardless of its logic, is the continued employer preference for applicants to have traditional academic qualifications rather than vocational ones, with the A-level still enjoying gold standard status.
Rather than a narrow vocationalism or Michael Gove’s narrow academicism, it would be better to provide a good broad education for everybody through a general diploma, which ensured an entitlement to different types of learning, providing high quality technical education and training for those who did desire it -with opportunities for workplace placements, but as one of a number of options not a distinct pathway. Learning about a range of social and political issues associated with work rather than just how to, would also be a mandatory part of a common core.
It goes without saying that this level of change and innovation could not happen all at once and that the first stage would have to be an overarching certificate linking the different types of existing qualifications. If this was to serve as a bridge towards more radical changes however, then subject combinations would need to be more directives than New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals required, or in the fudged Tomlinson proposals that ultimately did not come to anything after Tony Blair backed the continuation of A-levels. A universal general diploma could eventually provide the main avenue to higher education and employment, as well as being linked to new concepts of ‘citizenship’ for young people.
 For an over view of vocational qualifications and of the disastrous 14-19 Diplomas, see Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley A New 14 plus (2008) published by Ealing Teachers Association (Downloadable at http://radicaledbks.com/download-14-19-diploma-pamphlet/) and Martin Allen Learning for Labour Forum Vol 49. 3. 2007.
 See Martin Allen Rather than ‘Two Nation’ Labour, a good general education is needed for everybody. Forum forthcoming
 The NUT has supported a general diploma since the early 1990s. See the Union’s campaigning documents. The Road to Equality and 14-19 bringing down the barriers