why i'm moving to vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications have been in the educational news pretty frequently in recent months. With the Wolf Report published in March and the government’s response to it in May, anyone already offering a vocational qualification has had to have a bit of a think about their offerings recently. Ironically (I’ll avoid the work ‘irritatingly’ for now), this has come at the first time in my life that I’ve seriously looked at vocational qualifications at Key Stages 4 & 5. More to the point, it’s also the first time that I believe they can make education more relevant, meaningful and effective.

Before I go on to clarify why I’ve actually come to this conclusion, I’ll just take a moment to explain why I haven’t believed this in the past. The short answer would be that I was suffering from a combination of naivety, ignorance, snobbery and parental-pressure. As a pupil, I had the good fortune to go to one of the better local schools but it focused itself on academic qualifications and quite literally sneered at vocational options. There was a GNVQ in Business offered to KS4 & 5 pupils but it wasn’t promoted as an option to the more able pupils. In sixth form, anyone that was applying for anything other than a traditional ‘academic’ degree from a red brick university would even be mocked by the Head of Sixth Form for their ‘poor choice’ regarding their future. Suffice to say that I (like many of the people that will read this) had been indoctrinated into believing that vocational courses were for future drop-outs.

Fast forward a few years to my NQT year. I was asked to put together a new sixth form course in Music Technology and was asked to present the options to the governors. I started the presentation with a list the courses that we could pick from but it was made very clear to me that we shouldn’t be pursuing the BTEC options that I’d considered. A few months later, I remember recruiting for the newly offered A-Level in Music Technology and a parent saying “Oh dear, that sounds like a BTEC. Do tell me that you’re not offering BTECs now?”

From then on, vocational qualifications were so far at the back of my mind that they probably made an indentation on my pillow when I slept. Even when I moved on and became HoD at a school whose intake would traditionally be considered as ‘more suited’ to vocational qualifications, I didn’t even consider them as an option.

The story starts to change two years later when I was at yet another GCSE results day and praising the (former) pupils for all their hard work and telling them how great their two performances and two compositions were. As I strolled home, I couldn’t help but think that there was no way in hell these kids could do the same work again without the same kind of close mentoring that we’d been able to give them as a school. What did it matter if they had a G or an A* in Music if I didn’t believe they were armed with the skills to carry on doing this independently? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t apply to all of my pupils – some are now Music teachers, composers, performers, sound engineers, etc. The pupils on my mind were the ones that had worked hard only because I dragged them to the Music Department, sellotaped headphones to their heads and stood over them to make sure they composed. I was incredibly proud of them because I knew they had worked harder than they ever had done before but I knew that they hadn’t really taken any particular skills away with them. I wanted them to leave my course with more than the (incredibly important) knowledge that hard work produces great results. I wanted them to leave the course with a self-image that included the term ‘musician’.

So, I asked myself what I would change about the GCSE course to have them leave the course as ‘real musicians’. I decided that I wanted a narrower focus. As much as I love composing and believe that it’s something every musician should know how to do (in fact, I consider it my teaching ace card), I couldn’t convince myself everyone should be assessed against it. I’ve always believed that every musician should be an experienced performer but I can rattle off a list of fantastic musicians I know who can barely play a note. The ability to listen to music critically and apply keywords is surely a vital part of developing a musician’s skill set but the sheer number of pupils I’ve taught that could get brilliant marks in a written exam but never actually apply it to their own performances/compositions would take forever to type out. In short, I reached the point where I realised that I valued every aspect of the GCSE in Music but I felt that there are so many pupils that would flourish so much more if they weren’t forced to do all three.

So, I decided that what I wanted was a course that could be incredibly flexible. I wanted to allow pupils to pick a specialism that really interested them but, more importantly, I wanted them to finish the course with at least one musical skill where they were good enough to start making (a little) money from it if the opportunity came along. I wanted live performers that could work the stage as well as they could work the fretboard, studio performers that could play by ear or from dots, composers that could put together a jingle or a sonata and sound engineers that could actually set up the equipment from scratch or get out a soldering iron when necessary.  I wanted to have music journalists, marketers, managers, promoters, stage managers and everything in between.  In other words, I wanted my Music Department to feel like a microcosm of a local music scene.  It just seemed so obvious to me that if everyone focused on developing their best musical skills that they would (a) be asked to use those skills to help others and (b) that this frequent use of their skills would turn them into a real asset both during their school life and in the future.

With this in mind, for Key Stage 4, I’m trying out the Rockschool Music Practitioner course.  I’m probably going to make my life pretty hellish by not limiting the options that the pupils can choose from but I think it’s going to be worth it.  I’m going to let them pick what they want from any of the strands and, hopefully, end up with a class that has pretty much every pupil following a different course.  To get the ‘Level 2 Award’ (equivalent to one GCSE), pupils only need take two units and this should let them really specialise in an area that interests them.  I’m even willing to allow more able and enthusiastic pupils to go for the ‘Level 2 Certificate’ or ‘Level 2 Diploma’, where they can either gain a broader skill set or get a deeper understanding of the areas that they take on.

In short this could be the best or the worst idea that I’ve had for Key Stage 4 in my whole career.  I am, however, steadfastly clinging onto the belief that this is a great idea and that my pupils are going to leave Year 11 as more useful musicians with a real skill for life rather than generalists that can do a bit of everything to an okay standard.  In fact, the whole thing reminds me of my first attempts at reforming Key Stage 3 in the school and that’s been an outrageous success.  It seems quite fitting as it will be the same pupils that will be going through this experiment with me (owing to the fact that children get older and I so infrequently have good ideas).  With any luck, it will prove to be just as big a success this time around.

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