Academic vs Vocational Education

The Great Debate

There has long been a debate about academic and vocational education. We could argue that academic education in the UK has always been championed but, with increasing pressures from the government, is the value of vocational education causing attitudes to waver? Adam Mallaby reports on a roundtable discussion.

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In 2001, David Blunkett said the government was poised to bridge the historic gap between academic and vocational education, arguing that “in the future, vocational and technical education will be a positive choice, not a second-class fall-back, with as much status and esteem as an academic education.”*

Fast forward to today and, while the UK has seen some progress, there still appears to be a gap between the two. It could be argued that by separating vocational and academic education we are creating a false dichotomy, so we brought together some educational leaders from across the Midlands to discuss their vision for the future.

Pete Scales opens the discussion by asking what the panel understands by the terms academic and vocational education, and in what ways are they different.

“Vocational education (VE) isn’t new,” says Dr Lynn Senior, “it’s been around a long time and is any instructional experience that is either employment related or provides skills for young people to engage in and contribute to the economy and society.”

At the table:

• Pete Scales, Senior Lecturer in Education, and Learning and Teaching Adviser for the College of Education at the University of

• Dr Lynn Senior, Dean of the College of Education, University of Derby
• Fiona Shelton, Head of Professional Studies, University of Derby
• Malcolm Hetherington, Head Teacher at Bishop Lonsdale Church of England Primary School and Nursery
• Melsa Buxton, Executive Head Teacher, Fountains Community Special Schools Federation
• Melanie Lanser, Head of Teacher Education at Derby College

Melsa Buxton addresses academic education (AE) as “contextualised learning, embedded in history and society.” She argues that “in some schools an academic education teaches you the British values, where you are today. But there is a perception that to have what is deemed as an academic education you have to have a reasonable level of cognitive ability to be able to take on the facts and knowledge – if you don’t have that level of ability, where does your learning come from?”

“I wonder to what extent our attitudes to vocational and academic education are a British thing – is there snobbery there?” asks Pete.

“There’s absolute snobbery there,” believes Malcolm Hetherington. “The common misconception is that vocational education is for non-academics and for the children who fail as academic. It’s a historical idea and a shame that we still undervalue vocational education
over academic education.

“I’d like to see that both VE and AE provide skills to enable people to go into work – we want people to be able to operate in society in any job they end up doing.”

Fiona Shelton acknowledges that perceptions are skewing the UK’s educational attitudes. She says: “I’m concerned about this false dichotomy that’s been created between academic and vocational education. The two have to go hand-in-hand – you need the skills
and the knowledge to operate effectively.”

"There’s absolute snobbery there"

Melanie Lanser supports this: “In the UK, it is seen that vocational training is not usually a positive choice so you do it if you can’t do the academic side. Whether you’re learning a vocational profession or undertaking academic study, they’re the same, it’s just that we treat them and teach them differently.”

Interestingly though, attitudes may be changing. Research undertaken by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, an organisation that promotes university technical colleges (UTCs), which questioned more than 1,000 parents of 14 to 18-year-olds in mainstream schools, found that three-quarters of parents now believe children should have the option of a combined academic and vocational education at the age of 14.

The study also reveals that more than half no longer see traditional educational routes such as GCSEs, A-levels and degrees as the best ways into work.**

Pete questions the dichotomy between the two types of education, asking if they are essentially any different from one another. “It’s not just about academic or vocational education, for a truly effective education you need work-based, on-the-job learning backed up by
theory in the classroom – it’s a holistic education, which should be supported by hybrid qualifications,” argues Lynn.

“Unfortunately the way the British and the government view vocational versus academic education is creating problems. Look at the qualifications that have been implemented over the last 20 to 30 years; the increased flexibility programme for ages 14 to 19 which meant kids who couldn’t cope with school got shipped off to college for two days a week to do hairdressing, construction or similar.

“We then went on to different types of apprenticeships and then the diploma. Personally, I think the 14 to 19 diploma was one of the best chances we had as a society to actually remove that vocational and academic education divide. It had the academic underpinning,
the practical application, the personal and functional skills – everything that we needed to bring a hybrid qualification. Unfortunately the way it was set up was very expensive, people didn’t understand it, and it didn’t survive when it could have survived.”

The government is continuing in its attempts to bridge the divide and in March it announced plans to roll out nine new industry-designed flagship Degree Apprenticeships, with an aim that students would get the best of both academic and vocational education. At the time, David Cameron said that these Degree Apprenticeships would provide the “wider employment skills vital for career success.”***

It’s this ‘skills for success’ paradigm that Pete’s next question focuses on – whether if, in the midst of searching for the ideal education, we’ve forgotten what education is for?

“It’s about outcomes”, says Melsa. “What we’re trying to do is support and shape someone who will fit into society and be successful. It’s this idea of self-reliance, autonomy and liberation – the pursuit of happiness, if you like.”

Fiona continues the argument: “It’s an issue that education has become about the economy and a set of recognised skills and qualifications. Education is so much more than the pressures the government is creating within the education system. Education should
be about more than just learning knowledge and skills to pass exams. It should be about becoming a person who feels fulfilled in the world, a world that you belong in, and you belong in it when you know what you can do in it.”

Pete concludes with the question: “If Nicky Morgan [the Education Secretary] was here now, what suggestions would you make to her to improve education?”

“To value vocation and academic equally and not see them as separate things – they’re equally important,” says Fiona.

For Malcolm, “we’re one of the most creative and entrepreneurial countries in the world, our government just needs to be brave.”

Lynn supports this: “I agree, be brave. It’s about providing a rounded, holistic education. We need to remove the stigma around vocational education being second rate, create a strong identity for education in the UK and be fully engaged in the debate, with employers, the government and industry, at all times.”

What we do know, is that since 2010, 2.1 million apprenticeships have been created and in 2014, the government committed to creating three million more by 2020. We’ve also seen 39 university technical colleges open their doors to a new world of mixed vocational and academic education. The next question is how we can continue to implement these without forfeiting the quality of our future talents?

Writer: Adam Mallaby


*Does Education Matter? Alison Wolf, 2002

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