The divide is growing between what employers and ministers want students to study

All 16-year-olds will now have to sit five academic subjects at GCSE. David Davies / PA Archive

From this September, all pupils at secondary school will have to study English, a language, maths, science and history or geography at GCSE. This is the English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc, which education minister Nicky Morgan has insisted are core academic subjects that should be taken by all children.

The director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), John Cridland, does not approve: he has called for GCSEs to be phased out and replaced with an exam system that gives equal value to vocational subjects.

In defence of the government reform, it should enable young people to have a fairly broad education up to the age of 16 that does not restrict them in their future choices. It is a big change from the past when students could take a wide range of “vocational” subjects at GCSE. These were not regarded as useful for anyone except schools that wanted to boost their headline results by getting weaker students to take exams in subjects that were easier to pass. This was criticised strongly in the Wolf report in 2011 about vocational education and has since been changed.

The issue is that good general education (call it “academic” if you like) is a pre-requisite for popular courses in vocational education later on. For example, students cannot walk into a course in forensic science in a further education college without good grades in their GCSE, any more than they can be accepted on to an A-level programme. Students without an adequate chunk of general education are ill-prepared to undertake more specific vocational education, which is demanding and builds on their knowledge.

Don’t specialise too soon

A more fundamental issue is what type of educational instruction we (as a society) think it appropriate to offer students up to age 16. The requirements of the EBacc seem like a minimum for a developed country – and not unlike those in many others. They will incorporate some mastery of basic skills like literacy, numeracy and critical thinking that are valuable in the labour market and directly relevant to business.

A problem with including lots of vocational subjects as options at this age is not because vocational subjects are a poor relation to so-called “academic” subjects, but because, by definition, they are more specific and directly related to particular occupations. There’s a time and place for that – and several academic studies caution against specialising too young, such as international work by educational economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann.

It is not true that “academic” subjects are systematically valued more highly than “vocational” subjects if one reflects on what the word “vocational” actually means – a subject geared towards work in a particular occupation. Medicine, law and engineering are subjects with huge earnings potential. The divide is rather between the “A-level to higher education” route and everything else. The non-A-levels routes are many, varied and often poorly understood.

Standing up for post-19 options

There is indeed a need to constructively engage employers and their representatives in changing the education system in the next few years. However, the need is for them to engage with the post-16 and “adult education” debate. The post-19 education budget has been slashed, and yet very little commented upon by those outside the further education sector.

Keep other options open. Engineer and apprentice via SpeedKingz/www.shutterstock.com

There is a government commitment to three million new apprenticeships over the next parliament. Yet up to now, most new apprenticeships have been created for older workers that have been in their firm for some time (and not young students straight out of school or college).

There are constant demands by employers for a more skilled workforce, yet some have reduced training themselves over the past few years and there isn’t much evidence that very many of them work directly with further education colleges or universities to improve what’s on offer.

There may well be barriers to the involvement of small- and medium-sized enterprises (most British firms) to get involved in education. It would be good to hear the CBI speak up about those barriers and more generally to draw attention to the educators outside schools and universities. If “vocational education” is to be valued as the equal of “academic education”, then further education providers should not be overlooked.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.