Vocational education in schools: good or bad?
When I was a business school lecturer, my heart always sank when I came across a first year student who had done business studies at school. Almost invariably their courses would have been of very questionable quality, delivered by teachers with little or no experience of what they were teaching, and often with very old-fashioned and not very useful views of the business world. In fact, academics often took the view that the more vocational (and maybe less academic) secondary school courses were, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a serious problem for students when they entered higher education, where they would often have to ‘unlearn’ what they had just acquired.
Concerns about business studies and related school courses are underlined also by a recent Ofsted report in England, which has questioned the quality and teaching methods of some provision in economics, business and enterprise education in schools.
On the other hand, for those secondary school students who are not intending to move into higher education, vocational courses can be very useful indeed, and can be vital for economic development (it forms part of the Scottish government’s Skills for Scotland policy, for example). I have had an opportunity to look in more detail at Ireland’s Leaving Certificate Applied, and I take the view that this offers something really valuable to both students and their future employers; indeed I am just a little tempted to say that it is better than Ireland’s standard Leaving Certificate, which on the whole I regard as outdated and as having very doubtful pedagogical qualities.
What all this tells us, perhaps, is that while there is widespread recognition of the contribution made by vocational education, there is not yet a proper understanding of how this should be devised and structured, how exactly it is best equipped to support wider social and economic objectives, how vocational courses either do or do not support students as they progress to further or higher education, and what kind of courses really add value. At this time of further labour market changes and economic uncertainties, getting all this right is really important.