The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.


It's time for secondary schooling to recognise both academic and practical talents alike, argues SDP member Toby Mckenzie

By: Editor

As more teachers’ strikes loom, is it time to ask whether our school system is broken at a more fundamental level? The National Education Union, which of course has an axe to grind, has highlighted a rise in the number of teachers intending to leave the profession. Figures also suggest that many newly qualified teachers are deciding not not move forward in education, opting instead for less stressful jobs. Classroom management is also an issue with teachers having to spend too long dealing with uninterested and so often unruly pupils.

Teachers are passionate and they want to support the younger generations in maximise their potential. But what if the school system can be changed to support teachers in this endeavour? To better enable this I argue that we need to consider what we have from a pupil perspective and to better understand where this potential lies in each pupil.

Are our brightest academic pupils being given the opportunity in the classroom to fully engage in developing their knowledge? It would certainly seem not. But, likewise, are our more kinaesthetic pupils, who are much more practical in nature, being engaged to suit their ways of learning either? Answer as above.

The fact is we are setting our children up to fail by forcing them all down the same, singular educational pathway.

Ironically, one area of teaching practice is differentiation. This is where, as a teacher, you ensure your lessons cater for all skills levels in your classroom – you don’t run a task/activity exactly the same for everyone and you have different assessment criteria for those different pupil skills levels. And yet a broader differentiation between pupil talents – in type rather than in level – is overlooked.

Could secondary schools be developed to offer two alternative pathways, each with its own specific benefits? Could we find a way of not squeezing square pegs into round holes?

Here’s one proposal, in part with a mind towards Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, for those who want to do some further reading: after primary/middle school all pupils are allotted, through clear evidence-based assessment, to either an academically-focused school or a vocational one. One proviso to this is that after the first six months to one year each pupil is re-assessed to ensure they are in the right pathway.

Academic schools focus on pupils who have a propensity towards more traditional subjects – the sciences and humanities, IT, maths etc. This would enable the teachers to truly focus all their attention and levels of support to really drive pupil knowledge and skills, freeing up time and leading to far more enjoyable lessons for pupils and teachers alike. This focus could only benefit future arts, scientific and technological developments for this country.

Meanwhile vocational schools would focus on all those pupils who are not fully engaged in their learning by sitting all day in a classroom but who would hugely benefit from much more active learning. Consider all the practical applications maths and English encompass. Plumbers look at diameters, water pressures. Hairdressers regularly consider ratios. Sports inevitably considers human biology, and so on. Lessons will be much more practical in nature but will embed all the same key knowledge and skills.

From this we can also get a head start on shaping a workforce towards all the essential roles that keep a country moving. It would also lead to clearer referral links after secondary school towards apprenticeships and vocational qualifications. Over the longer run it could, I would hope, also lead a recalibration of attitudes so we don’t so readily privilege academic learning over more practical learning, as we – unlike many other countries – currently do to our detriment.

SDP leader William Clouston has already noted how “we’ve gone down the route of massive over-expansion of university education, of over-credentialised professions and of easy labour supply disincentivizing training and apprenticeships. We need a rebalancing whereby not having a [traditional academic] degree doesn’t work against you.”

Indeed, this dual pathway proposal would be a crucial part in changing attitudes, in shifting what has become an increasingly pervasive kind of snobbery towards those who have taken the vocational path. I am certainly not suggesting this would be quick or easy. It’s not just about pupils and teachers. Employers have to be encouraged to respect the legitimacy of vocational qualifications. Involving industry more in the content of post-secondary school vocational qualifications – helping to ensure they are up to date, when now they so often are not – may be one way of driving this.

But back to secondary school and its dual pathways first… The cost issues of this change cannot be ignored, of course, but I’d argue that the additional funding required would more than pay back in the dual pathway’s positive impact on the workforce, and by turns on society at large.

I have one further proposal to better implement this dual pathway, one which might sound more radical than I believe it is. I would propose that no exams will be completed in favour of full teacher assessment of their pupils. It is not right that we favour those – often the more academically-inclined – who are able to cram knowledge. The exam system gives them an unfair advantage.

Teachers know their pupils, see their development, effort and engagement is class. They see the quality of class work and homework completed. Termly grades will be completed to track development and highlight any areas of concern with final grades being allotted by the teachers themselves. This would immediately stop teachers, through no fault of their own, being pressured to teach a curriculum to ensure maximum pass rates to satisfy Ofsted.

This would also free teachers to take a broader approach to their subject – which most would love to be able to do – and not just teach the subject with a view to passing an exam. This approach would need detailed thinking before enacting – to ensure consistency and fairness in teacher assessments – but I believe it would be possible.

We can really engage our younger generations by supporting educational pathways that better target their individualised needs – and while the academic/vocational divide is not clear cut, and would not cater to all pupils (some of whom may be as happy in either camp, or neither), it is I believe a crucial step in the right direction.

We would have a younger generation that was more focused and career-orientated, rather just churned through the standardised system and spat out at the end. More importantly perhaps than preparing children for the working life, we could create a system in which they better enjoy learning for its own sake.

Toby is a quality improvement manager for Norfolk Adult Learning. Previously he was a teacher with YMCA Training. He is currently doing a Leadership and Management apprenticeship.

Contact the SDP if you have a policy proposal for consideration.

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27th April 2023

Family, Community, Nation.