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Rescue Our Schools’ David Taylor on why we need to value vocational education again

There is something very symbolic in the BTEC results being left to the end of this quite exceptional educational summer. Despite the fact they have the advantage of coursework and modular exams to draw on to justify the awarding of grades, their announcement trails their A-Level and GCSE cousins, disadvantaging the candidates as they chase courses at universities and sixth form colleges. It is a travesty that they and other vocational qualifications remain very much second in the pecking order.

I recall attending an event in London a few years ago when I was a secondary school headteacher. I don’t remember the specific purpose or the location, but it was a very plush propaganda-type affair. Both Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, and Michael Gove, unaware of his impending reshuffle from Education Secretary after been deemed a toxic liability by David Cameron, were present. They both spoke. Nothing Johnson said remains in my memory; however, I can resurrect the gist of a couple of sentences at the start of Gove’s utterances. In them he highlighted the opulent surroundings (ornate staircase, gold leaf on the ceiling, classical art masterpieces on the wall – you get the picture), the fine wine we were drinking and the haute cuisine canapes waiting staff were offering as they circulated with silver trays.

Under his breath, but perfectly audible to us situated at the back of the proceedings, one wag amongst the invitees stated wryly: “And I bet none of the people who created them studied your bloody EBacc”. Whilst it is quite possible that they did, the point was well-crafted.

Gove and his advisor, Dominic Cummings, were of course the architects of the EBacc, which has coerced schools into funneling all students, irrespective of their talents or interests, into subjects that they consider to be more ‘academic’. This has restricted choice and led to a significantly reduced number of students undertaking other subjects, particularly those deemed ‘creative’, such as art and music. They also demanded more rigorous assessment, and a move away from coursework, modular exams, speaking and listening and practical work to almost total reliance on terminal exams.

BTECs and many other ‘vocational’ qualifications were caught in the crossfire. Many were binned because they were considered to be of little value. Some, like BTEC Horticulture, lost their equivalence with GCSEs and/or A Levels, whilst others such as BTEC Construction and the Built Environment, retained it. However, both these and many others suffered a considerable shift from practical work to theory in the name of rigour. In practice, it became more important to write about building a brick wall than building the flaming thing, one of the very skills Gove had lavished with praise in his speech.

This year’s examination results were a fiasco waiting to happen. It cannot happen again. We must not return to forcing all students into a narrow range of predetermined subjects, solely assessed by terminal exams at set times on set days in May and June. To do so will be to deny many from showing their ability and true sense of worth.

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