Last year, Michael Gove, the Conservative Party’s shadow secretary for children, schools and families announced that his party planned to introduce technical schools if they were in power. These schools, with academy status would provide young people from 14 upwards with a vocational technical education.
Anyone who is aware of the history of the education system in England and Wales will have heard of technical schools. Under the 1944 Education Act, or the Butler Act, free compulsory secondary education was introduced. In many areas an 11+ exam determined whether a pupil went to a Grammar, Secondary Modern, or Technical School. So, Technical Schools are hardly innovative.
While the three types of school were intended to have ‘parity of esteem’, in fact, they didn’t. The 11+ was designed to select pupils into the most appropriate type of school, whereas, in reality pupils either passed or failed the 11+, with those passing it going to Grammar Schools, while those who failed went to Secondary Modern Schools. And Technical Schools? Well, there were few of them built, and many closed in the 1950’s. Not only were many children labelled as ‘failures’, Grammar and Secondary Modern Schools differed in the social class characteristics of their pupils. In short, middle class children were more likely to be selected for Grammar Schools, while working class children were likely to go to Secondary Modern Schools.
It is the potential that this class divide may be repeated if new Technical Schools are created that has prompted the NUT (National Union of Teachers) to voice their opposition to the Conservative Party’s proposal.
At their annual conference members of the NUT expressed concern about proposed changes to the curriculum for 14-19 year olds. They fear selection at 14, claiming that this will force children to make decisions about their careers, and will find it difficult to change their minds. Their concern is over the separation of vocational and academic education, which, they argue will result in a two tier education system. There is, of course some justification for this fear, as this is precisely what happened following the 1944 Act. Delegates also pointed to such a system reinforcing a class divide, again, evidence suggest these fears are justified, possibly more so now, due to changes in social mobility.
But, Michael Gove claims that these schools will be ‘high quality’ and that they will be ‘prestigious’. Can we believe the Conservatives? Well, the evidence from history suggests that it is the more academic schools which will be regarded as ‘prestigious’. But, maybe we should give their plans a chance? Perhaps those wealthy parents who have already put their children down for schools such as Eton and Harrow, might like to reconsider, and, instead decide to send their children to one of these new ‘Technical Schools’.
While we wait for that day, it might be interesting to see where Michael Gove’s two children end up at 14.