An academic education isn’t everything

Academic and vocational qualifications should be treated as equals


On her plans to reintroduce selective education, Theresa May claimed the current system is “sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology.” Ironically, the vast array of evidence based counterarguments appears to damn her own policy as doing just that. Yet as far as I can see, all of the arguments for and against grammar schools seem to rely on one key assumption: the idea that an academic education is best.

From the one side we hear “everyone should have the best education” and on the other, “we should be levelling up, not down.” Each statement rests on the premise that only with an academic education can children fulfil their potential. Instead, imagine a world in which academic disciplines were not seen as the pinnacle of education but just part of its many facets. ‘Vocational’ would no longer be a by-word for ‘second rate’, and those who learnt how to construct a car, not just an essay, would be equally rewarded.

Just take a look at some of our European neighbours, whose attitudes differ radically from ours. Germany is famous for its vocational qualifications, which give their graduates the same economic and social status as those who went to university. One of the reasons for this is that German children are taught from a young age that not being particularly academic is no barrier to success. This is reinforced by secondary schools which are on a spectrum, without top or bottom, from ‘Realschule’ which are tilted towards vocational skills, to ‘Gymnasium’ which are focused on academic disciplines, and ‘Hauptschule’ which teach a mix of both. There are no entrance tests and students are free to move if parents, teachers, and pupils agree. Coupled with such excellent vocational qualifications in higher education, those who are less academic often have the same chance of success as their more academic peers. It means no teenager feels left behind, or held back. And the key to it all is that purely academic qualifications are not seen as superior.

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Hence, ‘Gymnasium’ schools are not coveted in the same way as grammar schools in the UK. The idea that a child clearly suited to vocational skills is getting a worse education at a ‘Realschule’ doesn’t exist. Thus, it is a misnomer to think of an education system which includes academically-focused schools, grammar schools, as being selective in any sense other than filtering pupils into the right school for them. There is not even a need for a test. To think otherwise is simply to fall fowl of anachronism.

Many still point to the numbers of highly successful people who have been educated academically. Yet I need only look to Twitter on Results Day to see the litany of celebrities – actors, sportspeople and singers – tweeting about their low grades not being a barrier to success. Plus, let’s not forget that Oxford can cause us to view success through a rather narrow prism of partnerships and ministerial appointments.

So why do I really want to see academic schools – which I call grammars for convenience – introduced? I too suffer from a lack of objectivity. I cannot help but think an academic education is best, if only because of my experiences. But there are many others who think a musical, sporting or vocational education is the same. None are wrong; the only thing that would be is to prevent them from pursuing whatever they think is best.