28 July 2017
When I was leaving Intermediate school, I was headed, along with my twin brother, to Hamilton Technical College to do a course in carpentry. Our two older brothers had both attended that school and our Mother had gone there in the mid-1920s. We knew it was a good school!
But coming out of church one Sunday, the Principal of the intermediate school came across to our parents and said: “I want to see you about your boys!” We feared the worst but could not think why. Mum dutifully went across to the school on the Monday to talk with the Principal.
“Your boys should not be sent to Hamilton Technical College,” the Principal announced.
“Why?” responded a rather surprised mother.
“Because….” he paused a little dramatically, “they are academic!” he said.
Never one to argue with a teacher, Mum continued….“Well where should they go?“ she asked.
“Hamilton Boys High School – they have an academic programme,” he said.
“No,” she responded immediately, “they are too little to go to a boys school.”
Discussing this later that night at home we were all perplexed. What did he mean? What is academic? We had been called many things but never “academic”. It was a very unsettling time and where we once looked forward to going to secondary school with certainty about the future, we were now somewhat apprehensive. In the end, the answer to our dilemma was to go to a new school that had an academic stream. Which we duly did and arrived at the start of the year not really knowing or understanding what we faced.
It turned out to both bad and good advice that the Principal had given. Flawed rather than bad – we were simply unprepared for the demands of academic schooling and while our successes were good enough – we certainly explored the elegance of a low “C” and a high “D” – they were not robust in an academic sense.
Good in the sense that we were on a pathway that took us to university (first-in-family at the new Waikato University which had conveniently opened just when we needed it), on into teaching and rewarding lives in that field.
The Principal had however fallen into the trap of thinking that “academic” and “technical/vocational” were binary in terms of choice. As was common in those days, being a plumber was for one group while being a doctor was for another. These views guided a lot of decision making ib schooling such as designing tracks through school which really did commit young people to certain but not always necessarily secure futures. The academic / vocational choice was applied with a rigidity that was not helpful. And that is where the difference lies between then and now. In the more modern setting, learning and career progression require skills that are both academic and vocational.
Young people going into courses which are thought of as vocational or technical are often held back somewhat by their lack of academic preparation often described in New Zealand as having been “not very good at school”
Meanwhile the universities, which love to dine out on the fact that they are not vocational only open the doors to those who are generally academically ready to tackle their qualifications which are well and truly vocational – doctors, lawyers, economists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, and more are simply trades-in-white-coats. (Come to think of it, when I take my car in for servicing some of them are wearing white coats!)
There has been a convergence between academic and vocational education but this is not being sufficiently recognised in the way we go about organising education. We brand education activity as academic or vocation by institution type, by qualification structures, by levels of esteem, and by the way we carve up of the government education pie.
The result is not excellence but rigidity. We cannot seem to replicate in our education system, the flexibilities of Germany, the Netherlands and most of Scandinavia where pathways through education and training are flexible, where students can reflect their maturing aspirations by matching them to courses rather than being locked in inevitable outcomes. It is a much more sensible use of a country’s most valuable natural resource i.e. young people.
The new world is one which is characterised by multiple pathways, managed transitions, line of sight to careers, flexibility, seamlessness and high levels of engagement all. It is a very simple world to live in if we think that it is just matter of a choice between “academic” or “vocational / technical.” It might also be a world that has never existed.