I recently attended a theatre industry event that sought to answer the question: how do we identify and develop new talent into technical careers in theatre and live events? From sound engineers to carpenters, stage management and videography, costume to prop making – for every performer, there are myriad other trades and professions that get them onto the stage and in the spotlight.
The conversations I had that day highlighted a deeper change in the education landscape. The concept of an academic university education as the only legitimate pathway is now so deeply ingrained that it seems to have closed off wider horizons of possibility for a great many young people, from every socio-economic group. We must remember that access to, and visibility of vocational training and education truly matters, as it serves both people and the wider society equally.
Students on a different track
Headteachers meet students from time to time who are on another track. Shoehorning them into the more popular destination schools that tend towards an academic narrative might not always be in the student’s best interests, and encouraging parents to look at alternative options isn’t always easy. For the most intransigent parent, the idea of a vocational performing arts school, for example, is out of the question, and very little will budge them. Yet, when the tell-tale comments such as ‘we’ve no idea where this interest has come from’, or ‘we don’t know what to do with them’ begin to emerge, that can open the door to a more exploratory conversation.
“For the most intransigent parent, the idea of a vocational performing arts school is out of the question.”
In my first teaching placement, the school I was seconded to had a tie-up with a vocational college. I discovered that the same students I taught in the English classroom had a totally different demeanour and sense of pride in their work when in the engineering workshop. I wish that I had known about their hinterland sooner, as I could then have found new ways of integrating what we discussed in our English lessons, with their wider passions and interests. This isn’t an argument of either/or, it is about being open to what serves young people in their best interests.
Overcoming vocational prejudice
Being alert to that very real need in some young people and encouraging parents to put aside whatever prejudice or presumption they might hold about the value of vocational training, in the arts especially, can be hard. Yet it is important that by recognising it, we can support those touched by a particular gift and desire. When vocational drive is thwarted, either by denying access to explore it or because the opportunity is simply not available, the individual’s future selves can be denuded significantly. And in so doing we suppress the kind of talent that may one day enrich all our lives.
“We must not suppress the kind of talent that may one day enrich all our lives.”
Some vocational aspirations require intense early training, for example in music and dance. Like sport, it must start young if they have a career ambition in this direction. What we also see in vocational settings is that when this particular ‘tribe’ come together, they very often feel much more at home. They are finally among their own kind. Often they are outliers in a mainstream setting, in all their diversity, and sometimes report that they were miserable or disruptive at their former schools. You’ll no doubt have young people in your school now that spring to mind.
Bringing together vocational and academic study
Vocational arts education is a serious business. It certainly isn’t an easy option. It is demanding, requires exceptional tenacity to succeed, and, yet can be intrinsically rewarding in ways that few can imagine.
“The idea that vocation is the antithesis of an academic outlook is unhelpful.”
The very best performers I have met also have a deep curiosity for knowledge and understanding, so the idea that vocation is the antithesis of an academic outlook is unhelpful. The idea that the world of the mind is separate from the world of the arts as being mutually exclusive is not only wrong, but also divisive and undermines the ambitions of young people.
As we know, when we celebrate a young person’s passions, whether through vocational study, academic or both, it fosters self-confidence, resilience, and a sense of purpose. This in turn benefits not only the individual but society as a whole.