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Vocational education has a vital role to play in flexing young minds

Vocational education has a vital role to play in flexing young minds

Vocational education and vocational training are different, and the former benefits all, writes Ken Boston.

After 10 years in England, it is good to see the progress made in the inclusion of vocational curriculum in school education in NSW.

In both places, the purpose of teaching subjects such as English, mathematics, science, history, music and the arts is well understood and accepted. Such subjects introduce young people to our culture and traditions, and exercise and expand their minds and imaginations.

The content of these subjects is broadly authenticated by universities and professional academies and is not directly vocational in intent. The fundamental purpose is to exercise and grow the ''learning muscle'' inside the head of every adolescent. Beyond year 12, choices abound.

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Other kinds of subjects - such as automotive practice, construction, metals and engineering, hospitality, web design, information technology and hairdressing - are perceived to have a very different purpose, particularly in England.

These are vocational subjects. Conventionally, their role is seen as preparing young people directly for employment, using curriculum derived from industry, commonly presented as training packages. There are no choices beyond the equivalent of year 12; by then, young people have committed to apprenticeships or traineeships.

Both approaches are purposeful and valued but in Britain they represent a distinctly bipolar view of education.

Much has been done in NSW to recognise and respond to the needs of the tens of thousands of young people who occupy the middle ground.

Vocational curriculum is potentially as important in general secondary education as academic curriculum, especially for young people who are inadequately nourished by the traditional fare.

Vocational education and vocational training are very different: the former is about exercising and expanding minds and imaginations using curriculum derived from industry; the latter is additionally about achieving industry-standard job-readiness.

Well-taught secondary-level programs in automotive practice, web design, construction, hospitality and hairdressing have the potential to introduce young people to contemporary aspects of our culture, traditions and economy and exercise and grow their ''learning muscles'' in both the cognitive domain (knowledge and understanding) and in the affective domain (attitudes, feelings, emotions and behaviour).

Vocational education involves the acquisition of knowledge and the application of skill in the co-ordination of mind, eye and hand: thinking, reasoning, judging, doing. The processes involved in learning how to build a timber cabinet, and doing so, are not greatly different from the essential processes involved in solving a quadratic equation, translating Latin or constructing an essay.

This is not to ignore the very real differences between subjects in required depths of prior learning and degrees of intellectual difficulty. But if the general education of many young people might benefit from the inclusion of vocational curriculum, they should have access to it without having to commit to long-term vocational training or to future employment in that field.


Where vocational curriculum has been a successful element of general secondary education, the success has been due to different curriculum content and different methods of teaching.


Some years ago I followed a program for disaffected and underperforming year 9 boys. As part of an outdoor education course, they were taught field surveying. They worked in small teams, in all weather, for two days a week for 13 weeks, mapping a large area of sand dunes using dumpy levels and surveying staves. By the end of term they had all achieved year-level competence in maths and trigonometry (the cognitive domain) and they had also learnt the importance of initiative, accountability, teamwork and motivation (the affective domain).


It is a real achievement that nearly one-third of HSC students in NSW are taking at least one vocational course. More remains to be done but perhaps the biggest challenge is to attract suitably qualified teachers of vocational curriculum in schools.

Some years ago, when TAFE and schools in NSW were first brought together under a single minister, one of the purposes was to enable industry-qualified TAFE staff to provide vocational education in schools. That purpose has never been fully realised.

While there is a long history of humanities teachers moving from schools to TAFE and growth in secondary school students attending TAFE facilities for part of their program, there has been no substantial recruitment of industry-experienced staff to secondary schools.

The potential remains. The need persists. The industrial and other obstacles are complex but surmountable. The key requirement is that teachers of vocation curriculum must be industry-qualified staff from TAFE or other providers, or directly from industry, and thus have the same credibility in the eyes of students as their university-qualified physics or maths teachers.

Ken Boston is an educational consultant and a former director general of the NSW Department of Education.

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