From education to employment

Thoughts on encouraging more vocational people into teaching

Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

Fewer people are considering teaching than ever, and persuading skilled craftspeople out of industry and into the classroom is stifling the country’s productivity. In this article I question if language and expectations might play a part in the reasons why.

The one thing many notice when transitioning from a physical work environment into an academic one is just how ‘academic’ things can actually be, both as part of the teaching expectation and the qualification content. The current path for a vocational expert into education is often through the unqualified teacher route; starting work in a college and completing your teaching qualification on the job so to speak, in contrast with, for example, a secondary teacher who has often completed a degree and trained directly as a teacher. 

For many from vocational backgrounds, there is a stark contradiction. Stepping off the tools as an electrician on a Friday afternoon and starting as a teacher on a Monday morning is a daunting prospect, and perhaps one of the reasons that there is such a shortage of people willing to retrain as teachers (not to mention pay differentials). The academic pathway is rarely chosen by those in trades and professions because they did not consider themselves academic in the first instance, yet when they come into education, they are dropped into an academic and often bureaucratic and managerialist world. It is daunting. One aspect of this is societal.

The presumption that someone from a vocational background isn’t academic in nature, even though they have proved themselves successful in college since they left school, is something conferred onto people and worse still, believed. Despite all of this, it is often not the case. Vocational teachers very often surprise themselves with how well they cope with the academic element of the teacher training qualification and how well they pick up the non ‘workshop/lab/salon/kitchen’ elements of the teaching role. 

Barriers to teaching

This article isn’t intended to do a deep analysis of why we are having such a difficult time recruiting but seeks to highlight an element that irks me. One of the reasons that some enter education is for stability, yet it is anything but. For example, it feels that every time we see some form of qualification reform, we enter back into the academic/vocational debate. See the T Level, the 14-19 Diploma and the GNVQ as examples of the argument.

But one thing I think we’re really missing is not necessarily the debate on whether one is better than the other, more so on why are we even comparing them in the first place? The mere fact that politicians often refer to the A Level as the ‘gold standard’ is telling as to what they genuinely think of vocational qualifications, often forgetting the power and ubiquity of their voice on a national scale. Any parent surveying the narrative would less likely refer to this article (or indeed any other vocational advocate) but may listen to something a minister for education might say on national television.

Culturally though, we really need to drop this divide. It harms all of education, particularly the young who deserve a more nuanced approach and better and more accurate guidance as to their life options. The fact we separate and label the academic from the technical and vocational does nothing to prepare young people for a future that is far less binary than we would often like to believe. 

We need to change then?

At the risk of Orwellian connotations, fix should be the new change. We are stuck in a cycle of reform predicated on a historical misrecognition of what vocational skills entail and a wider misunderstanding of how and where the academic, vocational and technical sit within the educational world. For those who have sat in both camps, there are measurable successes. Quick wins.

Obvious correlations and perhaps more importantly, knowledge and experience of what does and doesn’t work stemming from a dual-professionality inherent in vocational status and the old chestnut of experience. But those who understand each camp are rare, and few have experience or status enough to contribute effectively or from an informed perspective. This brings in other questions: how would a typical minister know what a vocational qualification is? Does the civil service have employees with a background in vocational education (or a practical vocation full stop)?

Are researchers versed enough to understand the culture and nuance of the vocational world? Failings in programmes like the T Level for example were predicted way before a qualification specification was produced, by dint of the fact that the representative deliverers of the programme had experienced both industry and education. Same for the failed 14-19 Diploma. Same for the NVQ, at least in its initial incarnation, and same for the apprentice standards now, which has seen monies piled into higher level apprenticeships at the expense of the level 2.

If and when reform works, it is by the way of experimentation and modification, not by design, and it always takes time to embed and even longer for them to gain recognition outside of an educational establishment. 

Back to the divide

Parity assumes that qualifications are the same, but the truth is simply that they are not. The skills and knowledge required to become a plumber are not the same skills you need to pass a Physics A Level. The ability to determine inference is useful when studying English Literature but not overly helpful when studying culinary arts. The fact we have a T level in Bricklaying that has a requirement to understand electrical theory, kinetic energy and a passing knowledge of lighting theory is a frankly bewildering expectation for a school leaver. They may have the potential to carve an excellent and lucrative career as a bricklayer but have little interest in the detail of light refraction, the difference between artificial and natural light, glare, directed and reflected light, flow of light energy, daylight factor and colour rendering. 

The overwhelming reason for someone to choose a career in vocational education is to give something back, to repay a perceived debt back to the industry they identify with. Using the case of the T Level, we are not going to persuade a bricklayer to put down her trowel on a Friday afternoon and start teaching electromagnetic induction and types of transformers to students who signed on to become bricklayers on a Monday morning.

The push toward technical education is noble and right, but not at the expense of the vocational. Kitchens do not require ten chefs de cuisines and one porter. We don’t need six electrical engineers for every electrician. A garage full of diagnostic technicians without a mechanic does not a viable business make. If a potential teacher looks at the expectations of qualifications like the T Level, there is a good chance that while hovering over the ‘submit my application’ button, she may well just reach out for the trowel instead. 

So maybe the next time a civil servant reaches for the folder marked ‘reform’ (and it will happen, as history so often reminds us), consideration should be given to the language used. Vocational voices should be heard and considered and not in a negative way, but positively, as if hands-on, physical skills are not only acceptable, but laudable and societally acceptable. Once the culture starts to move, the country will too, and that benefits us all. Then just maybe, as a consequence, more would consider a career delivering these valuable skills.

Neil Sambrook
By Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

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