Bad Idea for Dealing with the Behaviour Crisis #4: Have More Vocational Subjects

April 26, 2007

Some commentators claim that behaviour is poor because education is too academic. For some “too academic” means teaching kids to read, write and add up. Others labour under the misconception that a large proportion of pupils are still learning grammar in foreign languages, still writing essays, still learning the quadratic formula or still learning about oxbow lakes. No wonder they are rowdy, why don’t they learn useful skills instead, like plumbing?

There are two obvious flaws with this argument. The first is that the curriculum is already becoming less and less academic with no improvement in behaviour. Every year traditional academic subjects are pushed aside for easy options that push schools up the league tables. Every year the curriculum is dumbed down and existing qualifications become easier to pass. It is now possible to get the equivalent of 4 GCSEs on a vocational ICT course which is assessed by coursework. It is now possible to get a grade C in maths without even being taught trigonometry. More and more non-academic options are offered every year while academic subjects are abandoned. There has been no noticeable improvement in behaviour as a result of this process.

The second problem is in the nature of vocational education. Not all forms of education that equip you for the workplace are considered vocational. Nobody considers law degrees or doctors’ qualifications to be vocational education. The term is usually saved for skilled manual workers, or sometimes office workers. This is where we run into difficulties. A good plumber, gas fitter or builder will be highly numerate and will also need a reasonable standard of literacy just to cope with the regulations that govern their trade. A good typist will also need to be able to spell and use grammar to a high standard. Almost anyone who uses a computer effectively will need a good standard of maths and English. If somebody is receiving a good level of vocational training they will need to develop certain academic skills as well. Of course, there is a constant effort to dumb down vocational qualifications, often concentrating on taking the maths out of them, but this has the effect of making them worth less and less to employers. The net result has been the closing of more and more jobs to non-graduates and the increasing use of migrant labourers, The simple fact is there is simply not the demand in the economy for uneducated manual labourers whether they have a GNVQ or not. For a vocational qualification to be any use it needs to be as demanding as academic qualifications, not a second tier aimed at the innumerate and illiterate. If students were unable to behave for demanding academic qualifications they will be equally unable to behave for demanding vocational qualifications.

Vocational qualifications should be a way of passing on a wider variety of skills, not a way of dumbing down the curriculum even further. They certainly can’t be a way of improving behaviour.



  1. One day I’ll find something on here I disagree with.

  2. The very idea of ‘vocational qualifications’ that are ‘worth somethines to employers’ IS a ‘second tier’. Are academic qualifications designed to be useful to employers? They are so only, I hope to heavens, indirectly.

    As soon as you are training people to meet the needs of employers you are not educating. Employers don’t want educated workers, they want workers with the required ‘skills’.

    To me the difference is immense, and I base my argument for this difference mainly on Plato’s Republic, with its idea of a three-tiered society (and a corresponding three-tiered self).

  3. I dont know if this is the right thread to use so please move my comment if need be:

    I noticed your latest link on Milliband.

    I actually have a fair bit of respect for his intellect and verbal ability, although I’m virtually apolitical myself.

    However I find his musings on the possiblity of reinstating the Tomlinson report bewildering.

    Tomlinsons suggestions were so full of flaws that even the sympathetic Labour leadership ditched them. If Milliband wants to make a bid for power with this in his portfolio of ideas he must be mad.

    Atrocious though our education system might be, one of the few things that garners respect abroad are our A levels which still do, to a large extent, provide a measure of ability and competence in a given discipline.

    Tomlinsons ideas undermined that in an expensive, beuorcratic way- hence their scrapping. They were criticised for allowing a dumbing down in standards and giving parity for courses of wildy different difficulty.

    The qualification system per se isnt the issue. School policy and behaviour is. I hope he and others leave the A levels alone and focus on what matters- behaviour and standards.

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