Amol Rajan: Skills for the poor, schools for the rich

Vocationalism is based on the ideas that education is a means to an end, and that poor kids are thick. The first is crass utilitarianism; the second is patronising nonsense
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The Independent Online

Of all the lunacies intrinsic to the era from which we are emerging, none has been as corrosive to national life as the systematic dismantling of academic education for the poor. This process has made the annual self-flagellation accompanying GCSE results, of which we had the latest instalment this week, replete with tales of five-year-olds getting 'C' grades, conceal a grim irony. Grade inflation is not the only, or even the main, problem; increasingly, it's the subjects themselves, and the fact that while the rich go on doing traditional, crunchy subjects, the poor are being told, in ever increasing numbers, to opt for softer, more practical courses. This is called vocational training. Under the auspices of benevolence, it is ruining thousands of lives each year.

In practice, it means allowing pupils to take qualifications like Edexcel BTECs, OCR Nationals, and City & Guilds in place of as many as four GCSEs. Such courses cultivate practically useful habits in subjects like hospitality, travel & tourism, or children's care, learning & development at the expense of more formal bodies of knowledge. Harassed teachers promote them, often convinced that the only way to engage disruptive pupils is to sanction the mantra of "relevance".

A study by the London School of Economics suggested that, even in 2006, the most disadvantaged pupils were five to six times as likely to enter exams other than full GCSEs. A forthcoming report for the think tank Civitas suggests that pupils at academies, which have to date been attended mostly by the poor, are almost twice as likely to study vocational subjects.

Such disparities are inevitable. The assault on academic subjects in the state sector has been unrelenting. Successive Education Secretaries have proselytised on behalf of vocational training, arguing that equipping young people with job skills gives them a sense of worth and boosts economic growth. But in doing so, they fail to distinguish between schooling and skilling; or, having distinguished between them, they think it fine to palm off poorer students with the latter.

That is a disgrace, not least because it is enacted on the basis of two assumptions, both of which are false: first, that education is a means to an end (ie a career), rather than an end in itself; and second, poor kids are too thick to cope with hard subjects. The first is crass utilitarianism; the second is patronising nonsense. Poor kids deserve schooling too; but the adoption of vocational subjects in their early teens shuts off the best university places, invites employers' scorn, and sustains the monopoly of the rich on high culture.

I work for some charitable enterprises that deal with the consequences of this pedagogic vandalism, and I can tell you what happens. Billy is at a tough school, where the teachers are brilliant but drugs and weapons are rife. He has learning difficulties. At 14, he is asked what he wants to do in life. His brother gets a bit of money with carpentry. So Billy takes up woodwork, at the expense of history or IT or economics.

Eighteen months later, Billy is still struggling at school. Facilities in the carpentry workshop are poor. Plus, he's finding woodwork boring. It was the only thing he bothered to turn up for, so he quits school. A local charity (ie me) tries to set him up with some work, but his poor attention span and lack of transferable knowledge mean he can't hold down a job. Unless he lands work in carpentry – not a burgeoning sector – the woodwork is a waste of time. Employers ask what value an unfinished vocational course is to them. They don't much care for an unfinished course in physics either; but they think the latter more likely to produce an agile brain. It is better to try and fail at hard subjects than easy ones. Billy opted for the latter.

There are thousands of Billys in England now. Next year, there will be more. By offering 14-year-olds vocational subjects, we presume they know what they want to do with their lives (they don't). Rather than open their world up, we close it down.

Maddeningly, those who defend an academically rigorous education for the poor are presumed antediluvian or right-wing, as if conservatism has a monopoly on knowledge and critical thinking. That says more about the cowardice and confusion of egalitarian educationalists than the conviction of conservatives like Roger Scruton, probably the most lucid advocate we have of the benefits of a universal academic education.

"It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age," wrote Scruton in his book Culture Counts, "that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it." He went on: "True teachers do not provide knowledge as a benefit to their pupils; they treat their pupils as a benefit to knowledge. Of course they love their pupils, but they love knowledge more."

This is the cruel irony of the vogue for vocationalism: its victims are told they will profit from shutting themselves off from subjects that the rest of the world thinks mandatory. A child-centred education system, it turns out, damages both the child at its centre and the culture for which he or she is being readied.

But the need to educate young people properly, and especially those who might be emancipated from poverty by our so doing, ought not to be a matter of ideology or tribalism. To proponents of the idea that schooling in the traditional sense – where proper subjects are compulsory until 16 and methods such as rote learning are celebrated – is a conservative conspiracy, I can only suggest they reach up to their shelves and pull down and dust off that peerless work of socialist commentary, The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, in which the author describes how the civilising force of a tough, academically exhausting education liberated him from severe poverty in inter-war Leeds.

Within the detail of this week's results is evidence of a mass fraud being perpetrated against those members of our society to whom we have the greatest duty. Belief in the transformative capacity of education, still sacrosanct in the great public schools of our country, is being abandoned. A few learn masses, but the masses learn less and less. Instead of educating the poor, we are skilling them softly.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/amolrajan

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