By Liam Conway
In 1976 James Callaghan made a famous speech attacking schools for their failure to deliver a workforce suited to the needs of the economy. Callaghan was talking nonsense of course — schools had nothing to do with the failure of British capitalism to meet the crisis generated by the massive oil price hike of the early 70s. Still teachers and schools proved a useful scapegoat, along with lazy workers and militant trade unions.
But the Callaghan speech was a starting point for successive government drives to vocationalise the curriculum in response to business demands. In many ways this was a cover for undermining comprehensive education and the right of all students to a broad and balanced curriculum. Vocational education would be another way to narrow and restrict aspirations, and mainly for working class students.
The real aim of vocational education can be found in the little known remarks of a leading civil servant in 1984.
“There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match. In some ways this points to the success of education in contrast to the public mythology which has been created. When young people drop off the education production line and cannot find work at all, or work which meets their abilities and expectations, then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences. We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities so that society can cope with the output of education… People must be educated once more to know their place.”
Increasingly that place is being decided by business leaders, not teachers and students. Following the Education Reform Act of 1988, secondary schools continued in much the same way. Many students benefited from the new GCSE exam system with its common tier of entry, emphasis on coursework and open ended question systems that potentially allowed all students to derive substantial personal and intellectual benefit from the process.
Under the Tories this began to be eroded through tiered papers and restrictions on coursework.
Meanwhile SATs and literacy and numeracy teaching in primary schools were acting as an excellent way of ensuring that all but the most resilient found “academic” education a complete turn-off early on in life.
What’s under threat here is not “academic” education, as the government would like to promote for the elite, but an education that encourages students to think for themselves and develop into intelligent human beings.
New Labour has extended “vocationalism” with a raft of new qualifications. In secondary schools the most prominent of these are Vocational GCSEs, which schools must now offer as alternatives to standard GCSEs. The VGCSEs are not even aimed at the less able but reflect New Labour’s obsession with creating a curriculum that functions purely in response to current economic needs — hence VGCSEs in Leisure and Tourism, Business Studies, Health and Social Care and ICT.
New Labour’s cynicism is all too obviously displayed by the “double-award” nature of these VGCSEs, which, at least on paper, appear a lot less demanding than the “single-award” standard GCSEs. But two GCSEs are better than one and boost the stats. The number of students gaining 5 A* to C grades increases.
The impact of these new courses — and VGCSEs are just a prominent example — can be devastating to option subjects like History, Geography, Music and Art, amongst others.
In an increasing number of secondary schools, usually those run by New Labour androids fresh from the National College for School Leadership, vocational subjects are given an option block entirely to themselves. In one Nottinghamshire school students must choose a VGCSE — one from four. The courses themselves hog four periods a week. Meanwhile students choose a maximum of two from thirteen traditional GCSEs.
It’s a wicked irony that New Labour and the Tories have said there is no such thing as a job for life and now they are breeding workers for exactly that — though its doubtful whether any jobs will materialise.
With the growing influence of private companies, through PFI, Specialist Status and now Academies, this madness is set to intensify.
Vocationalism under New Labour is turning teachers into mere civil servants executing a curriculum they have no control over. This is demoralising for them and devastating for the students they teach.
In the school described above, Geography and History teachers are delivering Leisure and Tourism to potential Butlin’s Red Coats, instead of, not as well as, teaching History and Geography. This is a frightening development, one which the left and the NUT must challenge sooner rather than later.