I had a depressing experience this week. I’ll not name the school or the representative of BTEC that I worked with because, such is the fear surrounding the current culture of compliance, they may well be in trouble if I did so.
I worked with a school which continues to offer vocational options for students. It’s been judged ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED but it recognises that a well-rounded offer should include a mix of academic (GCSE) and hands-on (BTEC) experiences. Except perhaps we should now label them ‘hands-off’. I started teaching in formal education through delivering BTEC courses, and I always loved them. I worked with young people from difficult backgrounds in South Manchester, and together we got as close to ‘real life’ learning in performing arts courses as possible: We set up record labels, we put on plays, we toured abroad. The written requirements were modest, and students were largely judged on their portfolio. Quite a few went on to have successful careers in the arts.
Clearly, it’s been a while since those days, and things have changed drastically. My session this week was with staff who lead programmes in health and social care, performing arts, sport, construction, and travel and tourism. They told me that the new course specifications (about to come in) have shifted the focus away from showing how towards ‘knowledge of’. They were looking for my help in making the learning authentic, through making useful products and services for a real, external audience. The designs they came up with were exciting and engaging. The enthusiasm that we all shared, however, was punctured by the arrival of the BTEC representative. I can’t claim the following to be 100% correct, and I haven’t been able to verify this since, but as far as I could ascertain, this will be the flavour of the new vocational courses offered by BTEC.
The new diplomas will have a written exam (comprising at least 25% of the final grade); teachers will deliver a block of teaching, then the students are required to work unassisted in completing an assignment; teachers can then offer a likely grade – but categorically NOT show them how the submitted work could be made better; students will then have 10 days to re-draft their work and re-submit. If issues arise for students, the teacher isn’t allowed to offer some more teaching to help improve their work.
The emphasis upon knowledge, and de-emphasis upon demonstration of mastery, is striking. They fly in the face of all we know about the power of mentors and apprenticeships. The construction tutors, for example, told me that the only practical work that a student turns their hand to now, is to make a square wooden frame. But they are expected to understand the equivalent of A-level maths (according to their tutors). That the tutors intend to continue to show their students how to lay bricks, plaster and paint walls, is their choice, and the students can’t be assessed on any of this. Imagine a student in the future going for a job with a construction company: ‘ Can you lay bricks?’ ‘In theory, yes’
The BTEC representative was caught between a rock and a hard place. She knows that the stripping away of practical, hands-on skills does students no favours, but she was just following orders. And she had to pretend not to hear when staff – by now quite agitated – said they were going to give students feedback whatever she said. One passionately told me that he’d come in to teaching to help students do better work, and no BTEC directive was going to stop him doing it.
What kind of madness have we reached when teachers are professionally de-skilled like this, and students choosing a vocational route are prevented from demonstrating their craft and skill?
Simply this: we have a Secretary of State for Education who, on hearing that some schools described BTECs as a ‘soft option’, and that a small number of teachers were doing rather more than offer students feedback, reacted by using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Rather than find those who ‘cheated’, he insisted that students should write more than do, that tutors should lecture, not coach, and that students who express themselves better through demonstrating their skills rather than regurgitating knowledge, would be firmly put at the bottom of the pile.
Going to university might have worked for Michael Gove, but those of us who have worked with these young people for many years know that it doesn’t work for everyone. The denigration and decimation of vocational learning that is taking place in this country isn’t just bad for our future economy – it’s labelling talented young people who want to learn a trade, or help vulnerable members of society, or make art, as somehow inferior to their academic counterparts.
And this distortion isn’t just affecting further education: yesterday, I listened to a professor from a university hospital in Liverpool bemoan the fact that nurses now need to have a degree. Indeed many of them go on to Masters level, preferring to research, or manage others, rather than, as he put it, ‘work on the ward, wiping bottoms’.
When, in a decade’s time, Mr Gove struggles to find a tradesperson, or a nurse, or a musician, he might reflect on his part in killing off vocational skills in England.