Top Nav Breadcrumb

Too many independent schools are scared of the word ‘vocational’

By Mark Waldron

I think independent schools in the UK fear the word ‘vocational’. However highly-rated qualifications like BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) are by employers and universities, they remain widely misunderstood and often discounted as inadequate by the parents who influence decisions in independent school curriculums.

Vocational or professional learning remains a hot topic in the education debate according to a report published last year by the House of Lords Select Committee for Social Mobility.

The idea that an 18-year-old in the UK should leave school with three A Levels and then go to university for three years to then walk into a highly paid and rewarding career is now outdated. Independent schools need to wake up to what modern vocational qualifications can offer. I refer to one of our curriculum choices, the IB Career-related Programme (CP). As a professional qualification, it avoids the old binary choice of academic or vocational – Instead, it intelligently blends the two.

I believe the UK has to recognise that A Levels teach and test only certain areas of a student’s ability. They sufficiently test these particular areas but lack a student development in confidence and resilience through the many extra-curricular experiences that take place in 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. We chose 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 focussed 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. 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, including those that join our school from the Portsmouth area and from overseas, is one of our greatest strengths. Although we are an island school, 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 as independent schools to be pioneers for positive change, to provide opportunities, and to use our initiative to start movements that can be adopted by the maintained sector. 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 focussing on what will really matter in tomorrow’s world.

Learn about the real benefits and impact the programme has on students


Mark Waldron is Headmaster of Ryde School with Upper Chine, Isle of Wight, UK.