Sociological explanations for the growth and development of vocationalism in education in the UK since the 1970’s

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New vocationalism refers to changing emphasis of education from being a means of reducing equality to meeting needs of the economy/industry. The acknowledged starting point of new vocationalism occurred in 1976 under the last labour government, of Wilson in 1972-76 and Callaghan in 1976-79. The notorious ‘Great Debate’ speech by James Callaghan made at Ruskin College highlighted the economic problems of the day. These included rising unemployment in the 1970’s, with a fear that school leavers weren’t good enough, they did not posses the right skills and were not motivated enough to be employable. Callaghan called for a great debate about what education is for, arguing that it should meet the needs of industry.

Callaghan’s speech was followed by a government decision document called a green paper. The paper argued that the improved performance of the manufacturing industry was vital in order to recover Britain’s economy and standard of living. Education was to contribute as much as possible to improving industrial performance and thereby increasing the national wealth. There have been many changes in the education system since 1976, all of which aim to drive up over all standards of education to meet the criteria of the Green Paper. They aim to increase the range of subjects in school, further education and higher education thus promoting the growth and developments of vocational subjects. In this essay I will outline and asses the sociological explanations for this growth.

Although the ‘Great Debate’ was initiated by a labour prime minister, it was in tune with some of the thinking of the New Right and the conservative governments after 1979. In particular the New right argued that education should largely be concerned with promoting economic growth through concentrating on improving the skills of the workforce. This supports vocationalism which aims to produce a skilled motivated workforce which are prepared for the demands of an industrial more egalitarian society. The New Right believed this should lower unemployment because more school leavers would be employable. There had to be changes made if these objectives were to be met, and education could begin to profit British industry. The government made education reforms in 1993 aiming to be more efficient, eliminating waste and saving the taxpayer money. The aims of the government reforms were to:

* Raise standards at all levels of ability

* Increase parental choice of schools, and improve partnership of parent and schools

* Make further and higher education more widely accessible and more responsive to the needs of economy (vocationalism)

* Achieve the best possible return form the resources in the education service

However there were also major educational changes introduced in the 1988 Education reform act. These changes were largely, but not completely, shaped by the New Right. One of the changes was the establishment of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) These were inner0city educational institutions specializing in technology. This fit with the concept of vocationalism, as they aim to produce a more motivated skilled workforce which will profit British industry.

The CTCs would be sponsored by private industry, so that the state did not pay the full costs of building the colleges, and they would be independent of LEAs. The Technology Colleges would cater for the 11-18 age groups and compete with existing state schools. However only 15 CTCs were ever established this was largely because of the lack of financial support from companies who it had been hoped would make substantial contributions to help set up CTCs.

There were other important educational changes introduced after the 1988 education reform act these were very focused on the growth of vocationalism. The technical and vocational Education Initiative(TVEI) was started as a pilot scheme for 14-18 year olds which ran alongside the conventional curriculum and included work experience. The TVEI became available to all secondary schools in 1986 and was later extended to include sixth form, further education and tertiary colleges. Roger Dale (1986) suggests that it was associated with the aim of producing pupils who had a better understanding of work and the economy thus creating pupils who could get jobs and carry them out successfully. This is one sociological explanation for the growth and development of vocationalism in education.

The certificate for Pre-vocational Education (CPVE) was similar to TVEI in stressing preparation for work. CPVE, first taught in 1885-6, was for those over 16 who were uncertain of what work they wished to do. It offered work experience and was taught in schools and colleges. CPVE taught practical skills, but could be combined with taking exams in traditional subjects, although in practice it tended to be taken by pupils who were unsuccessful in the compulsory period of education. The CPVE was not a great success and was later replaced by other vocationally orientated qualifications such as GNVQs and NVQs.

In 1986 the national Council for Vocational Qualifications was setup, with the aim of introducing standardized vocational qualifications related to working in particular occupations. By 1990, about 170 NVQs (National vocational Qualifications) had been established, with more being added to the list as time progressed. NVQs are intended to reward practical achievement, with qualifications being gained by demonstrating ‘competencies’. NVQs have four levels, ranging from level 1 (the equivalent of GCSE) to level 4 (the equivalent of postgraduate-Level study. After an initial two year pilot scheme, GNVQs were introduced nationally in 1993. These were intended to provide a vocationally-orientated alternative to traditional academic exams such as GCSEs and A-Level.

In conclusion there have been many changes in the education system towards vocationalism. Many of these have been to advantage British industrial society. The aim is to produce a motivated, skilled workforce which will be competent within a working environment due to the educational changes which encourage practical qualifications.

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