Opinion: GCSEs? O-levels? Open your minds!

Consider a vocational subject – dentistry. It leads to a job and requires hand-eye coordination and knowledge of tools and materials. To be good at it, you must prove your interpersonal skills. A major study is the physiology of certain human systems.

Now consider an academic subject – engineering. This needs an understanding of physics, chemistry, mechanics, maths, cutting edge optics, electronics, materials science… not every one in every case but your subset will require detailed reading, theoretical work and experimentation.

I’m making a crude point. The opposition of “vocational” and “academic” is artificial and demeaning.

Dentistry is high status, not least because of the expected earnings, and is not usually labeled “vocational”. Engineering in recent years has been a lower status subject (which seems to be changing) but it, too, contains “academic” and “vocational” parts. Both qualifications must be studied with extreme rigour and can lead to professional recognition and legal responsibility for getting decisions right.

A rigorous media studies course is perfectly possible (ask Greg Philo at the Glasgow Media Group) but such qualifications are seen as “easy”, and their supposed equivalence to “traditional” subjects less than respectable.

– With good reason. I once did a web course at NVQ 3 level, supposedly equivalent to two or more A-levels. That was a joke. The study and evaluation were serious, and I had to do a lot of work, but it was pass or not pass. The work I submitted was perhaps a good GCSE or a lowly A-level pass. It is hardly surprising that this stuff fails to convince.

Michael Gove pushes new, rigorous qualifications and takes the easy, prejudicial, step of including only certain GCSEs in an “English baccalaureate”. The fear is that he favours a “return to a two-tier system”, and his protestations to the contrary have also failed to convince.

My mother often laments the narrowness of modern education – specialisation at 14, if not earlier, engineers who don’t know any poetry, artists who can go through school without sullying themselves with computer programming.

She actually says much the same about her own education in the 30s and 40s, and sounds like Mark Henderson, whose Geek Manifesto is a vital call to arms for the development of modern Britain.

No child should be artificially restricted in their studies. If you really want to “work with your hands”, that need not mean you don’t like good books. If you are driven to pursue music, why should you stop studying zoology? If you don’t know (or are more honest) you should have access to it all.

Not everybody will, can or should achieve to the same level in everything they do, but all our children should at least be on the same scale.

Johnny’s portfolio might include half a dozen “subjects” or many more. Jenny might be able to show an employer or a university a list including high-level qualifications in physics and maths plus grade 5 violin. Both of them might have completed a work placement or enterprise project.

It is not many years since Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, proposed a portfolio diploma for all school students. The idea was slapped down on all sides, but it’s exactly the right approach.

It might require a bit more money, but the greater cost would be in shuffling off settled ideas. Every child should be presented with a broad education and well regarded qualifications in a good variety of subjects and activities. I might know that I will never attain the same levels as you, but I should not have my nose rubbed in the dirt by having to take a different sort of exam.

* Ed was a Young Liberal in the late 1960s, a supporter on and off over the years and finally rejoined the party in 2010.

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24 Comments

  • Liberal Eye 17th Sep '12 - 6:00pm

    Hear, hear.

    The idea that ‘academic’ is somehow good and ‘vocational’ rather second-rate is entirely artificial and damaging. Real choice in education (as opposed to the Tories’ faux choice between a good school and a bad one) would enable parents to choose courses that were appropriate to each child’s aptitudes and talents.

  • Richard Dean 17th Sep '12 - 6:24pm

    I suggest that education should be a preparation for adult life s a whole, not just the work part of it. There seem to be so many people who don’t know simple things like: interest is charged on loans, CABs exist, tax must be paid, cocaine kills, work produces wages, citizens have responsibilities as well as rights, how to get married, how to be a parent, a responsible spouse, simple first aid, contraception, speed kills, how to register to vote, what Europe is, how parliament works, what local councils do, how to queue, when you’re being exploited, Christmas is a religious festival.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 6:50pm

    As a chemical engineer I do resent the way you describe engineering as an ‘academic’ subject in an ironic sense to make your point. It reflects a peculiarity of the English language and the British mentality to link “engineering” and “engines” in order to depict experts and practitioners of genuinely academic subjects as though they were technicians. In many countries “Engineer” is a valued and protected title like “Doctor”, and I have heard its etymology associated with “ingenious” rather than “engine”.
    Indeed, it is good sport to wind up a room full of engineers by suggesting that mechanical engineering is car repair, electrical engineering is TV repair, chemical engineering is plumbing, and civil engineering is an oxymoron.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 6:54pm

    I just wanted to add that despite the ‘engineering’ bit, I do agree with the thrust of your argument and the importance of a broad-based education until children are mature enough to choose a path for themselves. I believe an approach that forces specialisation too early penalises children from a poorer or less aspirational background who may not fully appreciate the options that they have.

  • It’s really very simple. Pupils need a groun,ding in core subjects (englismush, maths, th skills (wood metal plastice three sciences, one or two languages, history, geography, philosophy). They also need sports, art, music, practical skills (wood metal plastics fabric food) and citizensship.

    All the higher, further and vocational subjects build on this base knowledge and can be studied at college or university when the pupil chooses to leave school. Studying sociology, computer science, engineering, medicine etc at school is a nonsense.

  • Peter, as the nephew of an engineer and the son of a metallurgist, I’ve been hearing and agreeing with complaints about the downgrading of engineers for about 50 years. I was indeed being ironic, but I thought labelling dentistry as “vocational” would get more backs up.

    Tabman, computer science may be a nonsense, but programming/logic is not, whereas ICT, which Gove was briefly interested in, is a ludicrous waste of time. It’s the skills you need to do many things, not a two-year study beginning at 14/15.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '12 - 11:12pm

    Ed Wilson

    Peter, as the nephew of an engineer and the son of a metallurgist, I’ve been hearing and agreeing with complaints about the downgrading of engineers for about 50 years. I was indeed being ironic, but I thought labelling dentistry as “vocational” would get more backs up.

    I didn’t see what you wrote as ironic at all. Indeed, I found it a bit difficult at first to see what point you were making, because, yes obviously Dentistry is a very specific vocational subject, whereas Engineering is a much more wide ranging academic subject. I would have though anyone sensible would agree with that; it took me some time to realise that actually you supposed people would find what you wrote shocking or odd.

    It all comes down to the British class system, which somehow seems to insist medicine and dentistry are the only acceptable things a gentleman who is good at science should do. One of the consequences of this is that the Medicine department at a university may be turning away people with AAA grades at A-level while at the same time the Engineering department of the same university is struggling to fill up even with people who have CCC. Just perhaps the poor state of the British economy is related to this phenomenon.

    Tabman, computer science may be a nonsense, but programming/logic is not, whereas ICT, which Gove was briefly interested in, is a ludicrous waste of time.

    I don’t think Tabman was saying Computer Science is nonsense, but rather suggesting it’s not a subject schools should attempt to teach. Programming and logic IS what Computer Science is about, or at least the core of it. The problem with ICT at schools is they cut this core out. It was deliberately designed to be “use of computers but without the programming part”. That’s a bit like having a subject called “French Studies” which is “about France, but without any use of the French language”. The problem was worsened by the fact that industry uses “IT” to mean “anything to do with computers”, including all the programming aspects. So people in schools and politicians went on promoting this “ICT” supposing it was what industry was crying out for when they went on about “shortage of IT skills” when it was not.

    In fact school ICT was deliberately designed to be something less taxing to keep the less academically able quiet. This had the consequence that because in the schools, teachers and pupils alike, it was supposed that university Computer Science was more of what they called “ICT”, we in Computer Science (I am a university lecturer in Computer Science) had a huge problem recruiting. We were starved of the most able potential recruits who saw our subject as “something the thickies can do”, and inundated with applicants who were just completely unsuitable for what we actually do.

  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 11:35pm

    @Ed Wilson
    My outrage about engineering was a trifle faux 🙂
    It is interesting to me though that a bunch of politicians with no great scientific or mathematical background are so dogmatic about the best way to produce scientists and engineers.
    It also depresses me that so many of them come from a background of Politics Philosophy and Economics (PPE) which cannot possibly involve studying all of those topics with sufficient rigour (that word again) to be useful, and means they approach important issues with “solutions” based upon prejudice and hunches, winning arguments because of their debating skills not because they are right. I would love to see the scientific method applied to politics, with an evidence-based approach to demonstrate what works.

  • So, “what works” for Gove, Peter. For me he is just infuriating prejudiced, and living in an era somewhere between 1930 and 1950, but seeking to turn the clock back, probably to the 1890s – sorry too many Liberal Governments then!!

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 12:15am

    @Tim13
    It seems to me that what works for Gove et al is a system which separates the wheat from the chaff. I believe that education should be about allowing the best to thrive and encouraging and enabling everybody to achieve their potential. This must include academic and practical skills (I’m not entirely sure I like the use of “vocational” as the flipside of “academic” in this context, but I don’t come from a background in the education so am not sure of the right nomenclature). I believe that it should also allow for a broad education that only narrows and deepens as children grow and become able to make informed choices based upon an understanding of their options, their aptitudes, and their abilities. I don’t see anything in the proposals to support this.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 12:41am

    @Ed and Matthew
    You make good points about ICT being important skills / tools to successfully study and practice other subjects. So it is interesting that in the 21st century, a progressive reform (any tags to denote sarcasm?) will be to assess children by forcing them to hold pens and write furiously for three hours. My son’s geography coursework involved using office applications to produce a report which included text, graphs, and images (as well as involving a field-trip, producing a questionnaire, and interviewing people). I see these as valuable skills that appear to have no place in the proposed system, which would truly be a step backwards.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '12 - 10:56am

    Peter Watson

    You make good points about ICT being important skills / tools to successfully study and practice other subjects.

    Sorry, you are falling into a trap here. Just because a school subject is called “ICT” does not mean it is useful. Personally I would like to throw all computers out of schools. Well, I guess we could keep the ones used for admin, but that’s it.

    What has school ICT given us? Well, when I first started working as a university lecturer in Computer Science many of the students we took in had never touched a computer. So we had to give them some basic training in pointing and clicking and the like. Now they come already familiar with that stuff. So it’s saved us, oooh, I’d say about a week’s teaching. Kids these days don’t have difficulty with that sort of stuff, it’s what their lives are all about, they spend so much time on their mobile phones and their computer games consoles. We don’t need to teach them basic computer usage. What we do need to teach them is basic logic skills and basic language skills – something we find they are quite often quite shockingly lacking when they come to us. Actually, Latin, with its formal approach to grammar, and very different way of representing information than in English works quite neatly to help gain a deeper understanding of language and knowledge representation. That is why I am only half joking when I say, as a Computer Scientist who’s passionate for teaching students the skills that industry is crying out for, that I’d rather they do Latin at school than “ICT”.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '12 - 12:19pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    I might have given the wrong impression: by ICT I simply meant the general use of IT, software & computers, etc., rather than any specific course in IT.
    However, I do think that it is important for schools to ensure that pupils are taught how to use computers effectively, even just for surfing the web or using office applications, since not every child comes from a household with a PC and a smartphone. Equally, I think that it is useful for children to have some sort of qualification to confirm to an employer on an application form that they have at least some basic skills and experience.
    I fully accept your point that such skills might not justify an academic GCSE, but not every child needs or wants that sort of qualification. I am also saddened if children have been misled into believing that such skills fully prepare them for a career in generating the software content that they have previously been consuming; it’s a bit like assuming that having a driving licence means are capable of designing a Formula One car.

  • This article starts well but then unfortunately meanders off. It says that children shouldn’t be pushed into a career at the age of 14… fine, most people these days still don’t know what they want to do even after they’ve graduated. It also says that they shouldn’t just do a single subject, they should do several. Okay… welcome to the world of 10 GCSEs and 4 A-Levels. Both the current system and the post-Gove systems retain these elements…

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '12 - 12:02am

    Peter Watson

    I might have given the wrong impression: by ICT I simply meant the general use of IT, software & computers, etc., rather than any specific course in IT.

    Yes, but this illustrates just so well the problem I am talking about. I have had to patiently explain to you, and it has taken several messages to get it across, that what is called “ICT” as a GCSE and A-level subject is NOT a useful preparation for a career in software development. The fact is that the mistake you made here is also made by many teachers, their pupils, and commentators on education. They just assume from its title that “ICT” qualifications are some advanced aspect of computers, and so it’s the subject those who want to become specialist software developers should take. Time and time again when I was a university admissions tutor for Computer Science, I had applicants tell me this, they had often even dropped A-level Mathematics, which is far more useful, sometimes because their teachers told them it wasn’t relevant for Computer Science but “ICT” was. We also had many applicants who assumed university Computer Science was just more of what they did as “ICT” at school – they had no idea that it was all about computer programming (something not covered in school “ICT”), they supposed it was just extra advanced use of word processors and the like.

    While the problem may be particularly severe here, similar can be observed in other school “vocational” qualifications. There are to many people jumping to defend them merely on the basis of the name of the qualification without bothering to ask whether the qualification really is useful for the “vocation” it supposedly relates to and valued by practitioners of that vocation.

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 1:00am

    @Matthew Huntbach
    I think we have a bit of a misunderstanding here. I am a graduate chemical engineer, but also have a BSc and postgraduate diploma in computing. I develop and support software for chemists and chemical engineers, and fully understand the sort of skills needed for such work.

    The point I was apparently failing to make is that not everybody wants to do a computer science degree (or anything else at university), but pretty much everybody needs a basic level of skills with using IT to support everything else they want to do. I believe that schools should ensure that everybody satisfies some set of criteria rather than assume kids arrive IT literate (particularly those from poorer homes), and this might well cover a range of skill levels, from producing word processed documents to automating spreadsheets, from searching the internet through to producing a website, from being able to work with Windows through to installing a Linux server. I’m also happy that this should be part of a graded and recognised qualification, whether a GCSE or a diploma, so that a potential employer can assess the skill level of applicants from their application forms. The need for such a practical computer-use skills qualification might be more important now if children are now to be assessed for everything else by a handwritten exam.

    I cannot comment on whether or not children have been misled into thinking such a qualification prepares them for a career in software development. It patently does not, but that is not a point I was trying to make and I have no idea what those students have been told or by whom. I suspect that an ICT qualification (or something similar) might be seen as a good indicator of aptitude by employers looking for potential IT support staff, but I don’t know. Equally, if considering potential computer science students I would expect applicants to possess most if not all of the same skills, though I would not want to see such a qualification being offered as an alternative to one in maths.

  • Peter Watson 19th Sep '12 - 1:14am

    @Matthew Huntbach
    “While the problem may be particularly severe here, similar can be observed in other school “vocational” qualifications. There are to many people jumping to defend them merely on the basis of the name of the qualification without bothering to ask whether the qualification really is useful for the “vocation” it supposedly relates to and valued by practitioners of that vocation.”
    I guess we’d need to go through these quaifications on a case-by-case basis, and to accept that an employer looking at a 16 (or 18) year old would have different criteria from a university admissions tutor. As a potential employer I would certainly be more enthusiastic about a candidate who had positively chosen a relevant vocational course rather than a “brighter” one who had failed at his more academic endeavours. If there are vocational (or academic) qualifications that do not prepare school-leavers for anyhing worthwhile then they should certainly be identified and changed or scrapped.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Sep '12 - 12:34am

    Peter Watson

    The point I was apparently failing to make is that not everybody wants to do a computer science degree (or anything else at university), but pretty much everybody needs a basic level of skills with using IT to support everything else they want to do. I believe that schools should ensure that everybody satisfies some set of criteria rather than assume kids arrive IT literate

    Sure, but there really isn’t a big problem with this sort of thing. Kids these days grow up with their mobile phones and computer games, they are used to handling computers. What the employers are saying is not that kids lack IT skills, it’s that they’re lacking basic reading/writing and maths/logic skills. The problem with trying to educate kids to “use computers” is that the educators are often way behind the kids, and he kids are finding it embarrassing because they think the educators are using old-fashioned technology – I’ve heard this many times from kids of my acquaintance.

    The real problem here, however, is the superficial nature of it all. Rather than teach kids the meaning of all the buttons on the latest version of Word, better to teach them more abstract language and logic skills. Then what they write using the latest version of Word will be better, and they’ll be better placed to pick up whatever comes in the future. After all,you and I just picked these things up as they came along didn’t we?

    I’m using “ICT” as an example as it’s one I’m most familiar with – I’m not joking, I really did use to receive hundreds of UCAS forms every year where not just the applicant but the teacher clearly assumed that “Computer Science” was more of what they called “ICT”. But please try to generalise – the issue really is do not judge a “vocational” qualification just by its name, too many of them were put together on the cheap, and are not respected by the vocation they are supposedly oriented towards. It really is the case that school qualifications in the more abstract subjects open more doors, and it really is the case that too many young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds just don’t seem to realise this and so are tricked into taking qualifications which will limit their future. I don’t mix much with posh people, and when I ask the children of the sort of people I do mix with what A-levels they are doing, I almost always end up inwardly groaning even though I try to be positive outwards – my inward groan is “oh dear,why didn’t anyone tell you that choice of subjects means you’ve written yourself out of the chance of getting onto most of the better degrees?”. It’s a huge problem, it really is, and I do hope the move towards greater emphasis on core subjects in the EBacc will do something about it.

    On school ICT qualifications, well, it may be appropriate if you want to to go into a routine admin job, maybe they should call it “Secretarial Studies” or something like that.

  • Peter Watson 21st Sep '12 - 11:40am

    @Matthew Huntbach “On school ICT qualifications, well, it may be appropriate if you want to to go into a routine admin job, maybe they should call it “Secretarial Studies” or something like that.” I’m sure you don’t mean to, but this does sound somewhat dismissive of children who don’t have the aptitude or aspiration to go to university.

  • Richard Swales 21st Sep '12 - 12:16pm

    Peter Watson, “I’m sure you don’t mean to, but this” (using the term Secretarial Studies) “does sound somewhat dismissive of children who don’t have the aptitude or aspiration to go to university.”

    Only if one is dismissive of the secretarial profession.

  • Peter Watson 21st Sep '12 - 1:49pm

    Or any “routine admin job”.

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