The take-off in post-school education has consequences beyond the control of governments, explains Alison Wolf. Among them is the flight from vocational qualificationsby Alison Wolf / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In 1881, the entire student body of Somerville college, Oxford numbered 18. At Corpus Christi college, down the road, a total of 15 freshmen matriculated and started their degrees that year. Today these colleges enroll over 300 students each; yet they remain the intimate, elite corner of university life. British universities these days conjure up images of vast examination halls, packed lecture theatres and overcrowded libraries catering for 1.5m students.
In that same year of 1881 the mining workforce numbered millions. In the London docks, thousands were hired by the day to handle goods by hand. This industrial working class survived well into the postwar period, but today it is gone. The typical workplace today employs only a few dozen people, has a flat management structure and rising skill requirements. But while workplace numbers have been shrinking, university numbers have been exploding. These numerical changes determine the choices individuals make for themselves; they affect the whole internal structure of education; and define the limited number of policies that governments can adopt.
The educational take-off
In the second part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the educational system throughout the industrial world was pyramid shaped. The bulk of the population attended only elementary schools, where they were taught the 3 Rs, and left at about 13 for work. Some went into formal apprenticeships, a few into craft or technical schools, but the majority learned on the job in manual occupations. A small middle and upper class population followed a curriculum which, uniformly, focused on the classical languages or mathematics. This was true in state-funded gymnasia, or lycea, or lyc?es, or in privately funded “public schools.” A high proportion of this already elite group progressed to universities, which in Europe in 1900 were enrolling less than 1 per cent of the age cohort.
Today, the developed world shares a very different educational structure. The majority of young people no longer leave school at the first opportunity, but stay in formal education, and collect formal qualifications. This shift to post-compulsory education happened very quickly. In the space of just 14 years-the time it takes a child to proceed from nursery to filling in university entrance forms-the participation rate of 16-year-olds in England and Wales rose from 42 to 72 per cent. Similarly, in just over 20 years, the percentage of the age cohort taking A-levels (or Highers in Scotland) has doubled.…