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14-18 - A New Vision for Secondary Education

reviewed by Robert L. Hampel - February 08, 2015

coverTitle: 14-18 - A New Vision for Secondary Education
Author(s): by Kenneth Baker (Author); Mike Tomlinson, Alan Smithers, Robert B. Schwartz, Andrew Halls, David Brandon-Bravo, David Harbourne, & Nigel Wyatt (Contributors)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1780938446, Pages: 184, Year: 2013
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Former Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker and his seven colleagues take on a big topic in this small book: the reform of secondary education in England. In 168 pages, they offer historical sketches, snapshots of current practices, and persuasive proposals for the future. Running throughout the book is an urgent plea for better vocational and technical education.

As the title suggests, the question of age is a central concern of the authors. When should young people make consequential decisions about their lives? The old notion that the sheep and the goats could be sorted at age 11 on the basis of examinations has long since passed. Age 16 seems too late, yet the national GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) tests discourage earlier specialization. Baker believes that age 14 is when students can select from what he envisions as one of four pathways: technology, liberal arts, sports and creative arts, and vocational. The endpoint is now in place; as of 2015, every adolescent in England must be educated until age 18—quite a contrast to 1976, when only a quarter of 16- and 17-year-olds pursued full time education.

Baker takes pains to show how each pathway could offer serious academic work, with transfer among pathways possible until age 16. The last thing he wants to do is resurrect the sort of tracking that many comprehensive American high schools adopted to cope with the early 20th century expansion of enrollments. The fact that each option is called college underscores (at least for American readers) the nontrivial curriculum in every pathway. Former Harvard President Charles Eliot had this foresight as he wrote in 1898, “we Americans habitually underestimate the capacity of pupils at almost every stage of education, from the primary school through the university.”

The devil is in the details whenever American schools attempt to improve vocational and technical education. For example, creating new options doesn’t go far unless local industries are supportive, which means more than just donating used equipment and giving pep talks. Will English corporations see vocational graduates as a reliable source of entry-level employees, or will they dismiss the coursework as exploratory? Will they establish meaningful apprenticeships during the school year and in the summer? Will they lobby for the extra local and national funds required by first-rate voc-tech programs? I would have enjoyed reading a chapter from the perspective of British industry.

The American readers will wonder about other details of the colleges Baker proposes. I didn’t see a word about special needs, and there was almost nothing about life beyond the curriculum—sports, clubs, peer pressure, part-time employment, daily schedules, ideal school size, etc. Some of the concerns we emphasize are not central to this provocative book, which is more of a call to arms than a blueprint. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, wisely notes in his chapter that, “structures, however well-designed, are not sufficient in themselves” (p. 94). We Americans often think they are. Instead, “it will be the human engagement, the personal support of each child, that will make the changes successful” (p. 94). If enough people share the engagement of Kenneth Baker and his thoughtful colleagues—if they truly believe that vocational and technical students deserve the very best—then secondary education in England has a bright future.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 08, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17843, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:49:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Hampel
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT HAMPEL is the author of Paul Diederich and the Progressive American High School (2014). He is a professor of education at the University of Delaware, where he is now finishing a history of "shortcuts to learning," various ways Americans tried to make education faster and easier.
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