One of the striking features of the secondary education system in England is the failure to introduce vocational elements into the curriculum. Successive attempts to create a long term and effective system including these elements have proved ineffective because of a whole series of factors, all of which have been discussed ad nauseam over many decades. Such worthy initiatives/schemes as CPVE, TVEI. GNVQ , link courses between schools and colleges and a series of reforms to establish vocational awards all ultimately failed because of political indifference or dogma. In addition many school teachers and LEAs were suspicious and in some cases hostile to TVEI. I worked in one authority that was very supportive of the initiative and excellent relationships were established between the colleges, schools and the LEA. Some of these initiatives promised much but few were properly evaluated and any lessons learnt were never picked up as so often happens with other initiatives in his country.
At present the skills agenda is being promoted by the government although as usual mixed and often contradictory policies are being presented as can be seen from the latest consultation on ‘Apprenticeship Funding Reform’ which would put a ludicrous burden on employers especially Micro businesses and SMEs . The centrality and importance of apprenticeships in creating a qualified workforce is on the agenda along with reforms to vocational qualifications but I feel that one major element is still absent which the government continues not to recognise and action. This deficit in the skills agenda is the absence of a long term, effective and mandatory set of work experience programmes such as work sampling/shadowing or work placement at school level reinforced by a curriculum that contains vocational subjects and themes. The government’s recent decision to withdraw funding to help schools facilitate work experience is depressing and retrograde and again reflects the lack of strategic thinking on the development of a qualified and skilled workforce.
Significant evidence exists that shows that students achieve and perform better if they have experienced some form of work experience or a greater practical awareness of the world of work. This is equally true whether the students are on the so-called academic programmes or vocational programmes. Furthermore the evidence shows conclusively that the earlier that experience occurs the better prepared the students are to more fully understand the needs of employment which in turn assists them to make better informed decisions about their future employment and/or further studies.
In spite of this conclusive evidence schools still find it difficult to engage with industry and commerce. The government mantras of ‘march with the maker’s,’ students must have employability skills’ and ‘students must be work ready’ are meaningless when the schools are not prepared to develop links with employers. In order to effectively realise a skills agenda and assist a rebalancing of the economy vocational elements and work based activities must be introduced from at least key stage 4.
So what are the reasons, whether real or imagined , why schools are reluctant to introduce these crucial elements into the curriculum?
Typical comments from school managers/teachers about vocational and work experience programmes are:
- Too little time to arrange non-essential topics in the timetable (Note the word non-essential which indicates little understanding or sympathy for such activities).
- The curriculum is driven by tests and examinations which allows little time for other activities.
- The curriculum has become a strait jacket, a tread mill coupled with an obsession with academic subjects.
- It’s difficult to establish industry-based projects which require cross subject involvement as colleagues are pinned down by form filling, teaching for tests and petty bureaucracy or they are not committed to the idea.
- No time to release students onto programmes of work shadowing/sampling, work placement and arranging for visits by and to employers.
- Students can undertake work placed experience at a later stage when at college; schools need to maintain an academically focused curriculum.
- The need to study as many subjects for GCSEs is often mentioned; it would appear that schools have accepted that cramming the curriculum is the norm and success is measured by grades and maximising the number of subjects gained.
- Employers cannot afford to expend resources especially at this time of recession and too often show they do not understand education.
Many of these factors are not necessarily the fault of the teachers; many are precipitated by present government policies which continue to heavily prescribe a narrow academic curriculum as evidenced by the replacement of functional skills by GCSE English and Mathematics. Also implicated is the acceptance by the government of a recommendation of the Wolf Review to stop funding for facilitating work experience in schools. Yes, academic drift is alive and thriving under this government whatever they say about vocational and apprenticeship programmes being a priority. Finally as has been said before staff in schools have little or no direct experience of the world of work outside their own profession following the traditional route of school, university/training college straight into teaching.
Employers especially the SMEs, which make up approximately 50% of all employers in the UK, must be provided with funding and equally importantly not tied down with increased petty bureaucracy. Effective and long term partnerships between schools, local colleges and training providers, professional bodies, LEAs and employers will surely increase the likelihood of a successful implementation of vocational and work experience programmes and remove the weak link in the chain which current policy represents.