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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Vocational education and really useful knowledge

Sue Kilminster, University of Leeds, UK

This paper will discuss some of the ways in which it is possible to break, or at least extend, the boundaries between vocational education and education for really useful knowledge. The paper is based upon work that I have done to investigate the development of critical awareness in vocational education. Vocational education is usually explicitly concerned with preparing participants to fulfil the expectations resulting from their social position but I believe that it also contains the potential for providing really useful knowledge where:

Really useful knowledge is knowledge calculated to make you free. (Johnson 1988, 22).

When vocational education includes a critical examination of the basis of instrumental knowledge it can then be said to have the potential to provide emancipatory or really useful knowledge and to be crossing its traditional borders. This is possible precisely because vocational courses do relate directly to participants' lives; this relevance creates the opportunity for critical examination of assumptions resulting in the development of new understandings which, in turn, can lead to the development of critical consciousness or awareness. Although the motivations of adults entering education and training are complex and varied there are indications that vocational students are looking for really useful knowledge and my research investigated whether such knowledge was being provided in vocational education. There were many difficulties in such an investigation and the research has raised many issues but this paper will concentrate only on a discussion of the ways in which vocational education could provide an education which extends the current boundaries or borders of education for working class people.

There is a massive distance between the borders of academic and vocational education within the UK; the much discussed academic/vocational divide reflects the boundaries of the class system. It is still largely the case that an individual's location within these educational boundaries is a function of their race, class and gender positions; consequently most working class adults receiving education are receiving vocational education. There is also a clear boundary within adult education between education for critical awareness and vocational education. The detail of the attempts in adult education, in the UK, Europe and America, to develop really useful knowledge through a radicalising, critical education are well documented, but there is no equivalent literature or discussion in vocational education. Vocational education has been consistently ignored, under-resourced, under-funded, under-developed and under-researched. The history of the development of vocational education in the UK is essentially the history of the development of an increasingly narrowly focused instrumental training for working class people, in contrast to the European systems of vocational education which provide a much broader based education. The British debates about the merits of a narrowly based skills training compared with those of a more broadly based vocational education and indeed those debates about the merits of a liberal education as compared with a scientific or technical education are still unresolved. The key issues in much of the British literature about vocational education are the merits or problems of competence based education and training and the introduction of the national framework of vocational qualifications; insufficient attention has been paid to the content and, therefore, to the boundaries of the vocational education currently delivered. The discussion in this paper is located within this broader UK discussion which in turn reflects much larger discussions about the effects of race, class and gender.

In the UK, vocational education for working class people is provided within further education (FE) colleges. Vocational and adult education provision, particularly for women, is not consistent as it reflects the vagaries of the labour market and different funding regimes. Women form the 'reserve army' for educational provision as they are the 'reserve army' for the labour market. Within adult education, provision, particularly for Access and related courses, appears on the basis of reported difficulties in recruitment and changes in funding to have peaked for now; FE colleges remain heavily financially dependent on working class women because of the funding regimes, but I would argue that their provision does not match women's needs and aspirations.

Currently vocational education provision is defined by and based upon the National Council for Vocational Education formulation of competence based education and training (CBET). There is ample evidence to show that CBET, in the guise of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), fails because it does not meet policy expectations, because of its inadequate theoretical formulation and because of practical difficulties (see, for example, Ashworth 1992; Field 1995; Hyland 1994; Robinson 1996). Furthermore, CBET is predicated on instrumental rationality and this is a fundamental weakness; the content of the specifications facilitates ideological control (Kilminster 1994); CBET is also used as a tool for controlling work-forces by its incorporation as a tool in human management resource strategies. Funding requirements mean that students undertaking vocational courses, particularly those in such 'women's areas' as secretarial studies, health and social care, hairdressing and so on, have to take competence based courses; indeed, a recent report (Robinson 1996) has shown that the majority of NVQs have been awarded in the service sector.

Therefore the current (and historical) context for vocational education, particularly for those working class people in search of a really useful education, is bleak. However, before doing my research I knew, both through my own experiences and those that other women had commented on, that new and radical understandings could develop through vocational education. Consequently, my own research, conducted whilst I was working in FE, was concerned with examining the processes by which working class women in FE gained these new and more 'inclusive, discriminatory and integrative understanding(s)' (Mezirow 1991) or really useful knowledge.

Discussions in the adult education literature, about facilitating the development of critical awareness tend to concentrate on process and the use of personal experience rather than the use of revelatory or useful knowledge (for example Brookfield 1987; Mezirow 1990) and this can be a weakness of radical education for working class people. Although personal experience is an essential part of learning there are limits to the value of both personal and collective experience in learning, as Hart points out:

Personal experience can only be the necessary point of departure for gaining socially valid knowledge; it cannot itself constitute the whole universe of such knowledge. (Hart 1990, 67).

Socially valid knowledge is theoretical and provides the context for, and distance from, personal experiences that is necessary in order to develop an understanding of the relationships between different aspects of one's own experience and those of others. Socially valid knowledge could, for example, involve learning about inequalities in health and is what I have been referring to as useful or revelatory knowledge. Socially valid knowledge is not usually available within the vocational education system and certainly not in the competence based courses as currently specified. Therefore, it can only be gained on the initiative of the teacher; one of the dangers with the highly prescriptive nature of NVQs and GNVQs is that they reduce and circumscribe the opportunities for teachers to mediate their content. The importance of such revelatory or socially valid knowledge for developing a more 'inclusive, discriminatory and integrative understanding' cannot be underestimated because it provides the necessary framework with which to make sense of experience. It is that knowledge, described by Hughes (1995), that links the cultural, scientific and practical and derives its curriculum from the interests of students, thereby enabling them to understand and so to challenge their oppressions.

The problem with much vocational education, particularly since the introduction of CBET, is that it often does not provide or encourage the acquisition of this socially valid knowledge because

the social world is presented and accepted as a natural phenomenon. For too long [vocational] education has submerged its students in a situation in which critical awareness and response are practically impossible. (Harden 1996, 32).

Harden is actually discussing nurse education here and she argues that nurse educators are both oppressed and oppressors; oppressed by nurses' position within the medical hierarchy as well as (often) by their gender position and oppressors because they deliver an education that emphasises instrumentalism at the expense of criticality. This is also true for educators within all vocational education, certainly in the 'women's areas' but also generally. Most further education vocational teachers have themselves been oppressed by their social position (and this is reflected within the further education college hierarchies) but in turn are also oppressors because they are delivering an education that suppresses criticality. Therefore, although it is possible to gain really useful knowledge through vocational education, it is apparent that its current structure and context mediate strongly against this possibility.

My research attempted to address three related issues in order to understand more clearly how to encourage critical awareness in vocational education. The first problem was the issue of how to evaluate critical awareness and the other two questions concerned whether there was any evidence of critical awareness among vocational education students and what effect, if any, competence based education has on this. Despite the methodological difficulties in assessing changes in understandings some of my research findings do have implications for teaching for critical awareness and therefore for changing the boundaries of vocational education. I found that working class women's definitions of significant learning gained through their college courses prioritised wider experiences and increased understandings together with the value of friendships and working in groups. Their emphases contrast strongly with the emphases in the delivery and formulation of CBET which is highly individual and instrumental. For many of the women, although useful knowledge was practical and specific they also made strong links between their self improvement and gaining useful knowledge. This useful knowledge was often revelatory and lead to new understandings and awareness; it was 'factual'. Examples of such knowledge included learning about aspects of social policy, psychology, sociology and so on and concerned issues about which the women said they had no previous understandings. The value of such revelatory knowledge depends on its context and meaning for the student; knowledge is situated and understandings are affected by one's race, class and gender positions. Therefore learning about the underlying assumptions of instrumental knowledge (for example how the structure of the National Health Service reflects the introduction of internal markets) can lead to new, more inclusive, integrated and discriminatory understandings. Similar revelatory knowledge in other vocational areas could include, for instance, transport issues in car maintenance, economic and labour market issues in business and secretarial studies, body image and fashion in hairdressing and so on.

The women in my study emphasised that they considered their college experience had led them to greater understanding and openness to new ideas and they thought that they were now more likely to think about issues rather than making assumptions. For example, many of the students commented that they had learnt to work with others from different cultures; these comments were made both by Asian and white students. The initial course work undertaken by these students was specifically intended to encourage them to examine some issues of race and culture. This work seems to have had very positive effects for many of the students and to have caused them to begin examining their assumptions; in Freirean terms this work caused them to begin developing understandings of the worlds of culture and nature understandings about what is fixed and what is changeable. For students at such 'teachable moments' such work causes them to examine their assumptions about their own culture and social position for white working class students this may include the realisation that they actually have a culture, as one student said:

I have culture. I didn't know that before. KA6-6 1 .

These realisations in turn can lead to further, more integrated and inclusive understandings about the social world.

Class-based understandings of knowledge mean that academic, but not vocational, education is often perceived as irrelevant, both for and by working class people. Vocational education is often more acceptable to working class people as it can provide access to work which, although still low paid, may be more remunerative than that otherwise available. Vocational education does relate directly to the lives of its participants and this is its potential strength as well as its weakness. This is because it can, or could, offer the opportunity to begin examining the assumptions at the basis of the particular training being undertaken and thereby to begin examining the hegemonic ideology that structures its participants lives. Although vocational education most usually reinforces social and educational boundaries it can provide really useful knowledge together with useful training.

There is a danger in my argument of reinforcing the idea that vocational education is particularly appropriate for working class people which is not my intention. There are some similarities here with the debates about whether there should be separate provision for women and black people or whether this reinforces their existing marginality these arguments are spurious because they present a false dichotomy as the different types of provision are not exclusive. I am not arguing that vocational education is preferable to other types of education or for separate provision but am taking a pragmatic approach to the effects of the structure of the education system its boundaries and borders and their maintenance. These effects, together with class, race and gender based understandings of knowledge, mean that, in the UK, working class adults receiving education are most likely to be receiving vocational education. If one is concerned with emancipatory education, with really useful knowledge, and the access of working class people to this, then it is necessary to examine how it is possible to provide this in vocational education and this was the purpose of my research study.

I am arguing that it is possible for vocational education to develop transformative learning because students can reach an understanding of social structures and ideologies through examining the communicative learning that underlies the relevant instrumental learning in their vocational area. If vocational education were delivered through critical pedagogy it would produce more effective practitioners and become a tool for social change rather than social control, thereby radically altering both the current and the historical boundaries of vocational education.


1 This code number refers to an individual woman who took part in my research.


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Harden, J. (1996) Enlightenment, empowerment and emancipation: the case for critical pedagogy in nurse education. Nurse Education Today 16, 32- 37.

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