Academic learning

There seems to be an awful lot of talk about academic learning these days. What does it mean? and for whom is academic learning important?

Michael Gove spoke yesterday and suggested that many young people are being denied the opportunity to excel in academic skills and that the curriculum should therefore change to put that right. Furthermore, he was lambasted by a caller on Radio 5, about his rigid view of educational reform.

This government, with Gove as Education Secretary, seem to value academic excellence above all else.

But what does academic mean? I get the sense that it means being in the top ten of any world-wide comparison of educational league tables. But that doesn’t address the needs of our country today or, by extension the needs of our learners.

What kind of degree does the butcher, the baker, the plumber, the HGV driver, the electrician, the shopkeeper, the gardener, the taxi driver, the hairdresser (etc.) need? What kind of academic excellence does the guy you call out on Christmas Eve to mend the frozen pipes need to respond to your call? In the main – none at all. Don’t misunderstand me, many of these tradesmen and women will undertake academic courses to better perform their business, but in the main, the courses they will seek out – but not easily find these days – are those that advance their skills; their vocational skills!

Why are vocational skills so undervalued? I know that I’d rather have someone come to fix my pipes who knows how to effect the repair and make it (and me) safe than someone who comes along and tells me where the copper is mined, at what temperature it melts, how the pipe is extruded and why solder is better than rubber at sealing pipes. We need to value vocational excellence as much as academic skills – neither should be paramount.

My wife teaches foundation degree to early years workers. In the main these students are adults managing early years settings. They are NOT stupid. However, the academic rigour imposed by the authenticating university leads them to believe that they are. The foundation degree is the only qualification available to them that offers progression: But progression towards what? If they were to undertake a course that developed their skills in the management and safety of their setting they would be delighted and would devour the course – but given the need to ‘write in an academic way’, something they have never done before is demoralising.

We shouldn’t forget that many learners choose a vocational route because that is what interests them and it is what they become good at. Many others choose such a route because academia is simply beyond them. Educational institutions, despite laws made to change this, simply cannot cope with dyslexics, or similarly capable adults who cannot ‘do’ academic.



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