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Are technical schools such a bad idea?

April 6th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I am old enough to have done an 11 plus examination in the UK. This was an examination taken as the name implies at the age of 11 and which determined whether you would progress to a grammar school, which was academically focussed, or go on to a secondary modern school, with a curriculum aiming at technical skills. Whilst it was theoretically possible to switch schools this was rare. And, prior to the raising of the school leaving age many pupils attending secondary modern schools left school at the age of 14 or 15.
In the 1960s most UK education authorities moved to comprehensive schools, catering for all students between the ages of 11 and 18, although at the age of 16 there was the option of going to further education colleges which offered both general and vocational education. Successive increases in the school leaving age posed an issue of how to develop a relevant and appropriate curriculum for non academically oriented students. And whilst, in theory the comprehensive system offers equal opportunities for all students, in reality there is a heavy class bias in terms of formal achievement.
Furthermore the recent policy of increasing the percentage of the age cohort attending university – the target I think is 50 per cent – has increased the divide in prestige between academic and vocational courses.
In contrast, in Germany the majority of school students progress to a three year apprenticeship. It is very noticeable that whilst in the UK company boards tend to be dominated by directors with business or accounting qualifications in Germany companies are often headed by engineers. The German system is impressive in providing quality training for an occupational career. However, there remain issues. There is a big difference in the quality – and prestige – attached to apprenticeship in different companies and between different occupations. And, just like in the old UK 11 plus times, students are allocated to different school routes at an early age – 11 or 12 according to which Lander (region) they live in.
The UK has made a number of efforts to increase the prestige of vocational education, introducing new qualifications and attempting to revive apprenticeship training through the New Modern Apprenticeships. Now both the Labour and Tory parties have come up with the idea of bringing back vocational schools, a measure which has been condemned by the tecahing trade unions.
The Guardian newspaper reports teachers as warning that “The poorest pupils will be segregated from their wealthier peers under Labour and Tory plans for scores of 1950s-style vocational schools to train the next generation of plumbers and engineers…..
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) passed a motion today at its annual conference in Liverpool expressing “deep concern” that the most disadvantaged young people would be coerced into technical schools, triggering another class divide in the education system. Poor pupils and those who spoke little English or had special needs would be steered into such schools because they typically performed less well in exams and lowered state schools’ league table rankings.
Teachers said pupils would be given an “empty promise” that once trained in a trade they would be able to secure a job. They added that the schools would widen the divide between academic and vocational qualifications.”
I share the concern of the National Union of Teachers around early selection of school routes and that students from poorer families will be pushed into attending what might be seen as second class schools. But I fail to see what is wrong in providing a choice of technical education and different forms of learning. Furthermore the quote about the next generation of plumbers and engineers sounds patronising at best. In fact this displays the root of the problem – the low prestige attached to becoming a plumber or engineer rather than taking a course in business studies at university. The provision of high quality technical schools could do something to change this.

2 Responses to “Are technical schools such a bad idea?”

  1. lizit says:

    My father was headteacher of a secondary technical school prior to comprehensivisation. He came from a working class background in a Lancashire mill town, leaving school at 13, despite having won a scholarship to the grammar school, and worked as a telegraph boy before moving into the electricity supply industry. He attended ‘night school’ for many years, eventually gaining an external degree in electrical engineering with first class honours from London university. Following the 1939-45 war he moved out of the electrical industry into teaching – he had always wanted to be a teacher, and he chose to work in technical schools. His motivation was to enable able young people, as he had been himself, to achieve their potential.
    The technical school was seen very much as a second best option in the town where I grew up – it was one up on the secondary modern but several steps below the grammar. My father took pride in seeing the number of young people who left his school with ‘O’ level results as good as many of their grammar school counterparts. He built up a sixth form and saw many students move on to university and into professional careers. He also made sure that every pupil in the school had the opportunity to take public examinations before they left. He knew how hard it had been to gain qualifications after leaving school.
    He was also desperate for people to value the kind of education offered in the technical school which combined a range of vocational subjects with high academic standards. My father saw the education he championed as providing opportunities to find what one could excel in and then to excel.
    I feel it is a great pity that the technical schools being sold to us currently are not about choice and excellence but possibly if they lead to excellence they may in time alter attitudes about what is and is not valuable in education and learning.

  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi – thanks for your reply – can’t help thinking that we do not value stories like this highly enough in research and policy. Couple of comments – I very much like the idea of ‘night school’ and think it a shame that has declined to extent it has.
    Secondly I think it is interesting that your father had experience of practice prior to becoming a teacher and that his own experiences allowed him to motivate learners – I worry that the present emphasis on university as the be all and end all of education is limiting the passing on of experience and practice.
    And finally the big question is now we chnage attitudes about what is and what is not valuable – those debates have been subjugated to ill informed policy posing over standards in recent years.

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