Too many independent schools scared of the word ‘vocational’

Headmaster of Ryde School with Upper Chine, Isle of Wight, discusses the benefits of an academic and vocational curriculum

Mark Waldron writes…

I think too many independent schools are scared of the word ‘vocational’ and however highly rated qualifications like BTECs are by employers and universities, they remain widely misunderstood and are often discounted as inadequate by the parents who influence independent schools’ decisions about their curriculum. But the idea that a young person should leave school at the age of 18 with three A-levels and then go to university for three years so that they can then walk into a highly paid and rewarding career is now outdated, and independent schools need to wake up to the reality of what modern vocational qualifications can offer. I refer to one of our curriculum choices, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Career-related Programme (CP) as a professional qualification. It avoids the old binary choice of academic or vocational, being instead an intelligent blend of the two. 

A report published last year by the House of Lords Select Committee for Social Mobility shows that vocational or professional learning remains a hot topic in the education debate. What we, as a nation, have to recognise is that A-levels teach and test only certain areas of a student’s ability and that, even though they test these particular areas well, they do not test and reward much of what independent schools do so well, including developing confidence and resilience, and the many extra-curricular experiences that take place in our schools. 

Recognising all of this, our school decided that we needed to deliver a curriculum that would provide the required academic qualifications, combined with the vocational learning and the life skills that other post-16 curriculums currently don’t offer, in the form of the CP. One of the major benefits of this programme is the flexibility it provides; some of our CP students are more academically able and approach the vocational elements of the programme as a way to gain direct industry insight and add valuable workplace skills to their academic qualifications; while other CP students are more focused on work-based learning, but will benefit from the academic qualifications they will also gain through the programme. They can use their hands and their heads at the same time, which can only be a positive outcome. 

Mark Waldron, Headmaster of Ryde School with Upper Chine

We do not see the CP as a vocational offering; it’s actually something that sits between practical and academic learning. It’s the combination of both elements in the CP (i.e. BTEC vocational aspects and academic study) that makes it a success, giving our students the opportunity to avoid having to choose between the two. 

The benefit of being an independent school is that we can enjoy the freedom to offer a curriculum that works for each individual child. I believe the diversity of our students is one of our greatest strengths. We have a global vision and the ambition for our students to learn the resilience, values and skills that will sustain them wherever they find themselves in the future. 

As an island school and, by definition, a small insular community, we need our students to develop an international mind-set and a global perspective. The CP is not just about improving workplace-readiness, it is about opening students’ eyes to the competition, the challenges and the opportunities open to them around the world. 

So, rather than simply shouting about our increasingly impressive A-level results, independent schools should be brave and engage in the conversation about what the education sector can do differently to address the skills shortage. We have an obligation to be pioneers for positive change and to use our initiative to start movements that can be adopted. We have to be brave with our independence, and part of that is not spending too much time worrying about traditional league tables and instead focusing on what will really matter in tomorrow’s world. 


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