Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Vocational education needs general education – Lindsay Paterson


You’d be forgiven for failing to notice in the first week of August that the OECD has just produced a significant report on Scottish vocational education, Strengthening Skills in Scotland. Swamped by the controversies over the Scottish exam results, it seems to have attracted no media coverage whatsoever.

You might also wonder, though, whether it would have been much noticed even in normal circumstances. Scotland does not have a good record of thinking about vocational education. Training is usually seen as an afterthought. Vocational modules at school have often been used to fill in the timetable of pupils who can’t manage a mainstream academic course, although this has been improving. HND and HNC courses at further education college are the poor relation of Scottish higher education. There is no consensus on what employers want from schools and colleges anyway – specific training, or a grounding in general skills. A report commissioned by the Scottish government in 2014 from the industrialist Sir Ian Wood said that training and links with employers should be embedded in the school curriculum. The Wood report now forms the basis of Scottish policy. The OECD suggests that general skills matter more.

Matters have, it is true, been slowly changing. The OECD reports that around 31,000 people start a Modern Apprenticeship each year, the most common being in construction, health and social care, hospitality or information technology. This compares well with the approximately 50,000 students who enter university degree courses each year recently (as reported by the Scottish Funding Council). Indeed, about one third of the apprenticeships are themselves at higher-education level. The OECD report analyses the economic and demographic trends that are pushing towards increasing the number of apprenticeships. Work requiring what it calls middle-level skills is being automated – secretarial and craft jobs, and jobs operating machinery. The population is ageing, which is creating more work in health and social care. The quality of the services that are offered to tourists is improving, and tourism is of growing importance to the Scottish economy (as this disastrous year has shown all too plainly). The growth of part-time and, especially, temporary work has reduced the willingness of employers to invest in training, passing the responsibility to public authorities.

All of this analysis is useful, and the recent better establishment of apprenticeships is welcome. But the debate in Scotland almost completely misses an important point. Vocational education needs general education. And that needs space in the timetable. The OECD does includes some valuable comparisons with other countries. One rather shocking summary shows the typical length of apprenticeships in various places. In Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the USA the minimum length is usually two years. In France a half of apprenticeships last longer than two years. In England a recent stipulation imposed the rather meagre minimum of one year. Scotland loosely requires that the length be on average one year, which, as the report notes, means that many will be less than that. Reasonably long routes in construction and engineering (2-3 years) sit alongside average lengths of less than a year in food production and retail. The reason for length is not only that it gives more time to cover necessary educational ground. It also leaves enough room for what the OECD calls ‘alternation’, moving between sustained periods in work and in the classroom.

That point about space to study is the crucial one. There is a tendency in debates in the UK about apprenticeship to imagine them as a form of glorified work experience. That is fundamentally wrong. Apprenticeship is about structured learning. The same might be said more generally about all kinds of vocational education that is intended to be truly educational. In Scotland, there has never recently been any attention to what must be included in that educational core.

The OECD only gets to this point very far on in its report, and then only in one brief page. It notes that general education is seen as part of vocational education in all countries where vocational education is treated as important. But it provides no details, and also tends to conflate general education with general skills (which is a narrower concept). For a better understanding, we have to turn to the excellent report which Professor Alison Wolf wrote for the UK government in 2011, and which remains influential on policy in England. Wolf explains carefully why the image of the German so-called ‘dual system’ which prevails in UK discussions is misleading. ‘Dual’ does not mean relegating those students who are not destined for university to a kind of residual low-level training. It means a properly designed vocational programme which is underpinned by general education.

The typical curriculum of 16-year-old students in the German vocational schools consists of German, mathematics, English, natural sciences, geography, history, aesthetic subjects, and sport. As Wolf says, this is ‘far more traditional, general and “academic” than would be the case for the vast majority of English schools at present’, to which we can add that the comparison with Scotland would be even more acute. Vocational courses are postponed, partly to keep students’ options open.

This is true of almost all developed societies. No matter what the eventual likely destination, vocational specialisation is postponed until after the end of compulsory schooling. It is then the responsibility of employers, not of schools or colleges, but even when in apprenticeships there is what Wolf describes as ‘a substantial amount of off-the-job general education’. The UK, by contrast, specifies almost nothing about continuing general education for apprentices.

The reason to give attention to general education is then not only that it keeps options open for eventual progression to higher education. And it’s not only that general education is a good preparation to be a democratic citizen. General education also appears to be a more lasting form of vocationally relevant education than anything more explicitly labelled as such.

review of this by Eric Hanushek and others (from Stanford University in California) found that vocational education for adolescents did improve their immediate employment prospects. Other research has found, similarly, that vocational training enables low-attaining school leavers to avoid unemployment. But these advantages don’t last. General education eventually improves the chances of employment, the average income in employment, and the opportunities to receive training on the job. As Hanushek et al. say, these advantages may come from the greater flexibility which general education encourages.

Scotland has debated none of this. The Wood report of 2014 pays no attention to general education. Curriculum for Excellence policy documents, for all their aim to make school learning relevant to life, contain no discussion of the relationship between general and vocational learning. They prefer to scatter vocational examples throughout the guidance, with no developed indications of how teachers might relate general ideas to vocational practice.

Nevertheless, although the recent OECD report on Scottish vocational education almost entirely neglects general education, it does at least mention it. Perhaps that small window of opportunity might begin to stimulate some new thinking.

Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University