Research finds less academic students ‘set up to fail’

As young people across the country sit their GCSE exams, a new report highlights widespread concern in secondary schools that thousands of pupils with vocational talent are being failed by an increasingly academic school system

More than seven in 10 (73%) secondary school leaders in England are calling for the school system to provide better outcomes for their vocationally and technically minded pupils, according to a new report from The Key – the organisation providing leadership and management support to schools.

The Key’s State of Education survey report, produced with Ipsos MORI, reveals that provision in vocational and technical education, which includes subjects such as catering, construction and engineering, has become weaker in more than half (56%) of secondary schools since 2014 due to changes to the school system. More than three-quarters (78%) have seen an increase in fear of academic failure among pupils over the same period.

One secondary school leader said: “How do you measure a child’s success? With their academic progress. The whole system is set up for that and if you’re not academic, you are seen as failing.”

Eight in 10 (80%) of the secondary school leaders surveyed maintain that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) performance measure, in particular, is limiting opportunities for their pupils with vocational or technical aptitude. According to the latest DfE statistics, while the percentage of lower attaining pupils to enter the EBacc increased in 2015/16, their achievement rates went down.

Almost a third (31%) think changes to the curriculum and school performance measures over the past two years have also had a negative impact on pupils’ readiness for the workplace or further education.

A secondary headteacher warns that the system should “Stop focusing purely on academia and start building a workforce for the future.”

An assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the north west said: “It doesn’t feel like the education system is doing the best for the children. Accountability pressures mean children are being encouraged to do humanities when a couple of years ago they would have been going into catering, and in our area there are a lot of opportunities in that industry.

“We aren’t going to force children down routes they shouldn’t really be taking, even if our school’s position in league tables suffers.”

Speaking about the findings, Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key said: “As the UK embarks on its exit from the EU, building the skills and workforce for the future is especially important, and that means optimising the potential of every child. Of course, pupils should have access to a challenging and stimulating academic curriculum, but to truly work for all children, the education system needs to value and make space for different types of learning and success.

“These findings highlight a troubling imbalance between vocational and academic learning in the system. It’s admirable that some schools are choosing to champion individual pupil success over their schools’ performance in league tables, but this should not have to be the case.”

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The government has pledged to introduce 15 new, post-16 pathways in vocational careers like childcare and construction by September 2022. However, some secondary school leaders worry that this could be too little, too late for pupils who might be ‘turned off learning’ or ‘feel like failures’ before they leave school.

One secondary headteacher in the south west said: “For some low-ability children the new GCSEs are really demoralising and so we need to create opportunities for success at all levels. The curriculum needs to be more balanced and offer opportunities for children to access more vocational provision or qualifications that are suited to their needs.”

While some European countries split their curriculum into academic and vocational/technical streams, less than half (43%) of secondary school leaders in England would adopt this approach if given the choice. More than three-quarters (79%) would like to see more core life skills, like financial management, communication skills and keeping healthy, included in the curriculum.

Many secondary leaders call for more flexibility around performance measures, so that a more vocationally balanced and holistic curriculum that suits the needs of all pupils would not adversely affect a school’s performance data.

One secondary head said: “There should be a more balanced offer of courses but I do not agree with streaming. Students should have access to the curriculum that allows them to achieve success and enjoy their learning. This, in most cases, would be a combination of courses, as well as flexibility and the equal status of vocational and academic courses.”

Another deputy headteacher explained: “Pupils should be allowed to follow vocational routes and work placements without it penalising their chances of competing with their most academic peers and also having a negative impact on the school’s progress 8 score.”

Sonia Blandford, CEO of the charity Achievement for All, said: “The recent Fair Education Alliance report ‘Closing the Gap in Maths’ showed that vulnerable children and young people (often those with special educational needs or disabilities, English as an additional language and/or those from disadvantaged backgrounds) are more likely to fall in the bottom percentile for maths than their peers – a pattern that we believe can be seen across academic subjects.

“The accreditation system in schools today is designed to place a number of students ‘below average’, with the possibility of the lowest third not achieving national expected levels. Put simply, our most vulnerable children enter an education system that is setting them up to fail. It is our job as educators to revisit this system to include accepted levels of accreditation in academic subjects that support those eligible for future vocational pathways.”

The Key’s State of Education report 2017 examines the pressures on schools today and how they are responding. View the full report.