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Education: a place where vocational/technical knowledge and skills should be championed - Darren Hankey

19th January 2023

Sadly, there does seem to be a prevailing view in education that vocational/technical subjects are somewhat inferior to academic subjects - and nowhere is this more amplified than on results days in August. Sure, we know that GCSE and A Level results come out on these days, but schools and colleges across the land also share results from vocational subjects as well. This year, the then prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the children’s commissioner and many others, who probably should know better, all congratulated those students collecting GCSE and A Level results without a mention for those young people collecting vocational qualification results.

This comes despite the best efforts of the amazing Steph McGovern in recent years. Furthermore, the strengthening of the Baker Clause in 2022’s Skills and Post-16 Education Act, now making it legally enforceable, underlines the view academic subjects rule the roost over vocational/technical progression routes at year 12.

Whilst I find this a sad situation, it strikes me that education is one of the areas where this divide is prevalent while in other areas of life, vocational/technical knowledge and skills are lauded. Take television shows such as All That Glitters, Master Chef, The Great British Bake Off, The Great British Sewing Bee and Grand Designs, for example, where millions of viewers tune in to watch high quality practical skills all underpinned by key domain specific knowledge. Recently, King Charles III featured on the Repair Shop – another show I could have added to the list above – and subsequently bemoaned the lack of vocational education in our country.

Television doesn’t have the monopoly on the appreciation of vocational/technical knowledge and skills. How many of you reading this have breathed a big sigh of relief when an engineer fixes your central heating boiler in the middle of a cold snap or repairs your car at the side of a busy motorway after an unexpected breakdown? Or the appreciation we have of a carer who has lovingly cared for and looked after children/elderly parents? Cast your mind back to 2020 and the start of the first lockdown; how many of us stood on our doorsteps and clapped the nation’s keyworkers as the pandemic took hold? The majority of these key workers performed jobs that required vocational and technical knowledge and skills.

It seems where TV and wider society leads, education needs to follow and, in my view, quickly. Of course, the fault for this cannot be laid entirely at education’s door. The labour market has a key role to play as many vocational/technical knowledge and skills do not attract the kudos, pay and wider terms and conditions academic qualifications do.

This is a view held by David Goodhart in his brilliant book Head, Hand and Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. The book clearly highlights that, as a nation, we need all three aptitudes – cognitive (head), practical (manual and craft) and caring (heart) – but in recent times, cognitive aptitudes have dominated and have become the “gold standard” and are now shaping the agenda. Furthermore, this is something which is out of kilter with other advanced nations. In a time when levelling up and social mobility feature heavily in the rhetoric, a shift away from the over-riding “head” orthodoxy is key. Everyone deserves respect and reward for whatever work they do, and it is essential we reassess what we value and see as the “gold standard”.

As a sector, we clearly champion vocational/technical knowledge and skills and it’s right that we continue to do so. The tide does seem to be turning, but there’s more for us to do – the struggle is real. Let’s see what progress we’ve made come the August 2023 results days - hopefully other areas of education can start to take a leaf out of TV’s book and celebrate wonderful vocational education and training.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.

Sadly, there does seem to be a prevailing view in education that vocational/technical subjects are somewhat inferior to academic subjects - and nowhere is this more amplified than on results days in August. Sure, we know that GCSE and A Level results come out on these days, but schools and colleges across the land also share results from vocational subjects as well. This year, the then prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the children’s commissioner and many others, who probably should know better, all congratulated those students collecting GCSE and A Level results without a mention for those young people collecting vocational qualification results.

This comes despite the best efforts of the amazing Steph McGovern in recent years. Furthermore, the strengthening of the Baker Clause in 2022’s Skills and Post-16 Education Act, now making it legally enforceable, underlines the view academic subjects rule the roost over vocational/technical progression routes at year 12.

Whilst I find this a sad situation, it strikes me that education is one of the areas where this divide is prevalent while in other areas of life, vocational/technical knowledge and skills are lauded. Take television shows such as All That Glitters, Master Chef, The Great British Bake Off, The Great British Sewing Bee and Grand Designs, for example, where millions of viewers tune in to watch high quality practical skills all underpinned by key domain specific knowledge. Recently, King Charles III featured on the Repair Shop – another show I could have added to the list above – and subsequently bemoaned the lack of vocational education in our country.

Television doesn’t have the monopoly on the appreciation of vocational/technical knowledge and skills. How many of you reading this have breathed a big sigh of relief when an engineer fixes your central heating boiler in the middle of a cold snap or repairs your car at the side of a busy motorway after an unexpected breakdown? Or the appreciation we have of a carer who has lovingly cared for and looked after children/elderly parents? Cast your mind back to 2020 and the start of the first lockdown; how many of us stood on our doorsteps and clapped the nation’s keyworkers as the pandemic took hold? The majority of these key workers performed jobs that required vocational and technical knowledge and skills.

It seems where TV and wider society leads, education needs to follow and, in my view, quickly. Of course, the fault for this cannot be laid entirely at education’s door. The labour market has a key role to play as many vocational/technical knowledge and skills do not attract the kudos, pay and wider terms and conditions academic qualifications do.

This is a view held by David Goodhart in his brilliant book Head, Hand and Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. The book clearly highlights that, as a nation, we need all three aptitudes – cognitive (head), practical (manual and craft) and caring (heart) – but in recent times, cognitive aptitudes have dominated and have become the “gold standard” and are now shaping the agenda. Furthermore, this is something which is out of kilter with other advanced nations. In a time when levelling up and social mobility feature heavily in the rhetoric, a shift away from the over-riding “head” orthodoxy is key. Everyone deserves respect and reward for whatever work they do, and it is essential we reassess what we value and see as the “gold standard”.

As a sector, we clearly champion vocational/technical knowledge and skills and it’s right that we continue to do so. The tide does seem to be turning, but there’s more for us to do – the struggle is real. Let’s see what progress we’ve made come the August 2023 results days - hopefully other areas of education can start to take a leaf out of TV’s book and celebrate wonderful vocational education and training.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.