Vocationalization of Secondary Education at the Crossroads ? Rupert Maclean, the Hong Kong Institute of Education
In 1990, 192 nations of the world, and the education for development community, met in Jomtien, Thailand, and made a commitment to achieving Education for All (EFA) and the eradication of illiteracy. Although EFA remains elusive, considerable gains have been achieved over the past 22 years with regard to the universalisation of primary education. Partly as a result of this success, in most developing countries, worldwide, more students are now going onto secondary school in greater numbers than ever before, with secondary education now being regarded in many countries as being part of basic, essential education.
In the past it was widely accepted that secondary schooling was for the few, for a relatively small number and proportion of students who were mainly concerned with receiving an academic-type education, for entry to universities and high status professions. With an increasing proportion of relevant age groups now wanting to go onto complete a full cycle of secondary schooling, for its own sake, and not necessarily go onto university, schools have had to modify their curriculum and entrance procedures to become more comprehensive. They have done this by providing a wider range of courses, which are both academic and (increasingly) vocational in nature, to accommodate the more diverse study interests and range of capabilities of students. As a result, more emphasis is being placed on economic productivity, with secondary schools increasingly stressing skills development for employability, and preparing students more directly to meet labour force requirements.
This trend, which is referred to as ‘the vocationalisation of education’, often enjoys the support of governments who promote the (generally incorrect) argument that this is an effective way of reducing youth unemployment. This view is generally incorrect because youth unemployment will only be reduced if there are sufficient jobs to absorb youth who have the specialized skills in demand in the labor market, rather than the general skills most likely provided by vocationalised secondary schools.
There are some, such as Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia, who recently lamented this trend, and who argues that the programmes offered in many secondary schools are ‘being reduced to mere vocational training’. Prof Schwartz and his supporters believe that secondary schools should stress a general education and the intellectual development of learners, mainly through traditional academic subjects. Such critics want to wind-back the clock to a time when secondary schools focused almost exclusively on academic learning.
Others (including myself) disagree and believe it is both desirable and appropriate that secondary schools are more accountable to meeting the economic and labour force needs of society through placing a greater emphasis on skills development for employability. The pro and anti vocationalisation of secondary education camps are currently locked in a war of words, with secondary education being a cross roads concerning likely future directions.