Dr. Owen Corrigan: What about the snobbery that despises vocational education?

Corrigan owenDr. Owen Corrigan is a Research Fellow in Education at Policy Exchange.

Launching the Government’s update on the social mobility strategy yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister railed against the class snobbery which, he says, has made Britain a closed society. A society where people don’t choose their place, rather they know their place. Nick Clegg argued that the under-representation of less well off pupils at Oxbridge, where only one in 100 entrants had been on free school meals compared to one in five in the general population, was morally, economically and socially intolerable. Key policies aimed at the transition points in young people’s lives will throw more grant money at disadvantaged university applicants while continuous monitoring of universities themselves will ensure they are making full efforts to widen participation among disadvantaged groups.

Yet this veers rather close to another form of snobbery, the kind which assumes that middle class aspirations around university attendance are the only aspirations we should encourage in young people. At the same conference, Ed Miliband deplored the snobbery that says that the only route to social mobility runs through university. Vocational education in Britain has long been treated as second class, he said, and claimed that it was essential to put in place a better offer for those who don’t go to higher education. In this he was correct.

In fairness to the Government, it has acknowledged the shortcomings of vocational education in Britain, undertaking to implement the recommendations made by Professor Alison Wolf in her report on the system last year. One of these major recommendations entails stripping out all but a limited number of vocational subjects from school league tables. This will have the desirable effect of removing educational pitfalls for pupils, where they end up with Mickey Mouse qualifications that are absolutely useless on the labour market. But alongside Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate reforms, designed to encourage traditional academic subjects, vocational education seems likely to remain second class, the slow lane alternative for those who missed the turn-off for the university highway.

Paul Champion

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