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Academic vs. Vocational: A question for everyone

This morning I asked a colleague a question which I thought would have a straight-forward answer: in what circumstances should we recommend vocational courses over academic ones? I had spent a day yesterday at a couple of contrasting London schools and had been idly pondering the best design for a sixth form curriculum offer - should all children have the opportunity to learn vocational subjects regardless of their academic ability?  

This question is answered unwittingly time and again across the country when a school chooses not to offer vocational courses, and focuses their efforts to help students achieve C grades at GCSE so that they can access A level courses - even though they might not be the best match for them academically. Often only those students who are less academically able are introduced to vocational courses. And by making this distinction, we reinforce the suggestion that vocational courses are somehow inferior or better suited to those who learn in less traditionally academic ways. It’s clear that there is an inherent bias in our education system towards academic courses and particularly the A Level and University route - what I want to know is whether this is a fair bias – are more kids suited to academic style learning or is this just a legacy from our education system of old? And to be clear, I'm not suggesting that schools are at fault here - their actions are often a product of the measures by which they are assessed. 

Whilst out in schools we do hear oft-repeated stories of highly academic pupils who embark on vocational and apprenticeship courses in preference to A Levels. We hear stories of how competitive the more challenging apprenticeships are - which could be a reflection of their availability or of the prior attainment required and the degree of challenge that they entail. So I wonder - does the data really stack up? Will all kids benefit in doing vocational subjects regardless of their academic ability? We can only answer these questions by considering a range of success metrics - happiness, wellbeing, salary, progress, professional development. 

The classic go-to argument on this topic is financial - that it is preferable for a student to complete their further education whilst earning a salary (through part time vocational study + part time job or through an apprenticeship) and without having paid out up to £36,000 in tuition fees in addition to the living costs associated with university life. But is the financial argument sufficient when the vast majority of students are just embracing adult life with a side dish of debt? 

Interestingly, a study from the USA found that “Students who took four full-year vocational courses and eight full-year academic courses in their final 3 years earned substantially more, immediately after graduating, than students who took 12 academic courses.” Certainly the anecdotal observations that teachers have shared with us would suggest that students need to develop more employability and soft skills in order to succeed in the workplace - perhaps introducing some vocational element would benefit all students after all.  

When selecting a school or college, course or subject for sixth form, the first question all parents should ask themselves is – what is my belief system here? Do I want my child to achieve the highest academic qualifications that they are capable of or do I want them to explore their personal interests/passions? Perhaps you would rather achieve a balance of the two? There are schools and colleges whose philosophy of education reflects these priorities – and some that strike a better balance than others whilst also helping to develop those vital employability skills.

There are University Technical Colleges in the UK where all students are required to apply for an apprenticeship and a degree when they are 17. Whilst this might seem like double the work, their philosophy is that this will ensure every child is making a fair decision and that they truly explore both routes and identify which is the best match for them personally. If nothing else, it reflects my sister’s favourite job-hunting catchphrase – “it’s worth applying because you don’t have a decision to make until you have an offer on the table.”

This feels like a topic that deserves a lot more exploration than I can warrant for my musings so for now, I must trust that the same degree of rigour is being applied to vocational courses in terms of the quality of provision so that young people who are motivated to do so, can make a fair comparison.