Scotland traditionally guards its educational autonomy but developments south of the border frequently influence thinking here, sometimes positively. We need to watch English developments. One innovation which requires monitoring is the JCB Academy in Rocester, Shropshire.
The JCB-sponsored, £22m, non-selective, co-educational, vocational academy focuses on engineering and business education. Around 170 pupils attend the school in the refurbished, Arkwright Mill (illustrated) donated by the digger firm. Students combine theory with practical activities. The specialist programmes have close links with JCB and other major engineering firms such as Rolls-Royce and Toyota.
The hours are more like business than school, but the curriculum encourages effective use of time, meaning that there should be very little – if any – homework in the senior school. There is an emphasis on self-discipline, good behaviour, uniform, teamwork and co-operation.
Academies are independent state schools with outside partners, high levels of investment and greater autonomy. The government is paying the remaining 90% of the costs of the school. Laptops will be issued to every pupil. Students – aged 14 to 19 and from Staffordshire and Derbyshire – can also wear 3D glasses in one classroom to see colour animations of the work they are undertaking. The school hopes to increase pupil numbers to about 500. JCB hopes the academy “regenerates engineering and manufacturing in Britain”.
In a period of economic crisis when jobs are scarce, the development of technical and vocational skills is essential. Moreover a school with a highly specialised curriculum does not require the economies of scale and can subsist on the relatively low numbers envisioned here. What is also being recognised in Scotland is that the broad academic curriculum continuing to the end of S3 is unattractive to a cohort of young people who have a thirst for practical and applied skills.
There are models where technical skills are successfully delivered. The German vocational schools system has developed innovative curricular models which maintain a high degree of student engagement. In some, for example, if a student is studying, say motor mechanics, that student’s maths and German language work are entirely geared to the functional necessities required by the motor mechanic. This however can be a relevant but intellectually deadening and socially divisive system. Its inevitable corollary is Germany’s Gymnasien, selective academic secondary schools preparing students for university. It rigidly, artificially and inaccurately divides the hewers of wood and drawers of water from the elite.
What is intriguing about the JCB model is that it is not an all-through secondary. It starts at age 14, the very stage when the broad curriculum is starting, for many learners, to lose its attraction and its relevance and when the urge to engage with learning relevant to the world of work is becoming powerful.
It is always difficult to combine multiple objectives. Here however are a few targets, all of which Scottish education should aim to hit. Maintain the comprehensive system. Engage with employers but avoid handing over any school to a particular employer. Allow greater genuine choice at the end of S2, including opting out of traditional academic subjects and, for those interested, pursuing an enhanced range of technical and vocational courses. Remove the league-table pressure from schools to push as many students as possible through as many external exams as possible and allow courses to be developed to meet students’ needs and interests rather than statistical imperatives.
Two other thoughts however: comprehensives which offer a rich academic curriculum and a rich vocational curriculum cannot operate on small pupil numbers; and if broad education is to continue to the end of S2, why not reconsider the middle school option?
This article first appeared in Holyrood Magazine on 14 November 2011: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/2011/11/14/from-the-chalkface-specialist-schooling/