A recent Education Guardian article by Andrew Thomson discussed the Wolf Report claim that there were 350,000 young people on ‘dead end’ courses. Is the possibly of reaching a ‘dead end’ a useful way of thinking about learning?
It’s (too) easy to discuss vocational courses in these terms. Thomson uses the example of an IT-qualified person becoming a care worker. Does that make the IT qualification a ‘dead end’? Clearly not.
What if that IT-qualified person is unemployed? Is that the ultimate ‘dead end’? On the face of it, yes, because the qualification hasn’t led to a job … yet. Unemployment is a transition – it may be difficult to find work, and job seeking may last much longer than anyone wants it to, yet it’s not a permanent state. Even if our IT-qualified job seeker finds employment in a different vocation, he or she still has the knowledge they gained about IT.
Vocational courses clearly signpost the intended outcome. That doesn’t mean the qualification is of no value if the actual outcome is different.
And what about academic courses? Are certain degree subjects are a waste of time (and money). No. A properly designed and validated degree course is a valuable learning process in it’s own right. Whatever the degree certificate says, the silent message is that this person has transferable skills.
This is a clue to resolving a fundamental problem with education in the UK – the perceived superiority of academic over vocational education. Do graduates have transferable skills and knowledge, and vocationally qualified people non-transferable specific skills? It doesn’t work like that. Learning can be applied in different contexts.
Labels limit. Lifelong learning can mean moving in and out of different types of qualifications at different stages of life. As Andrew Thompson says: “we need the potential of our young people to be liberated.” Not just our young people though – everyone. We need a qualification system and attitudes to learning that are flexible enough to respond to that call.
No more ‘dead ends’; plenty more opportunities to transition to the next possibility.
By Ian Paul Sharp