Simmons, Robin (2015) What are we doing this for? Liberal studies in vocational education. In: Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults. 2015, 7th - 9th July 2015, Leeds, England.

One of the central purposes of education and training is to prepare learners of the world of work. Such assumptions underpin much vocational learning and are reflected in nature of the curriculum to which students are exposed, much of which promotes particular forms of knowledge and skill deemed necessary for certain occupational sectors. There have, however, also been long-standing concerns about the dangers of narrowness in vocational education, and the social and economic merits of broadening the curriculum to include certain forms of learning outside students’ immediate occupational goal. There have, over time, been various attempts to do this, although the particular form such provision has taken has varied considerably. At least since the 1980s though, certain notions of employability have become popular, at least in official discourse, and hence there has been the promotion of particular forms of learning which attempt to inculcate learners with a range of generic aptitudes and abilities, and certain so-called transferable skills deemed necessary for the workplace. There have been numerous initiatives which purport to do this but, in England, virtually all vocational learners are now required to take Functional Skills qualifications in English, mathematics and ICT alongside their main programme of study.

On one level, it is difficult to contest the goal of improving learners’ skills and abilities across what are, after all, important dimensions of learning: poor literacy and numeracy skills are associated with a range of social and economic disadvantages, and the use of information technology is now commonplace not only in the workplace but across a range of social and cultural spheres. It is important, however, to recognise that employability is a contested concept, and that different forms of skill and knowledge are required for different forms of education and work. Different forms of education and training, and the nature of the curriculum to which certain individuals and groups are exposed, are, as Basil Bernstein points out, also related to various dimensions of inequality, not least social class. It is also necessary to highlight that there have in the past been radically different attempts to broaden the learner experience in vocational education, and this paper revisits one notable attempt do this - the liberal studies movement which existed in English further education (FE) colleges between the 1950s and the 1980s.

This paper is based on findings from research into the experiences of former liberal studies teachers, funded by the Raymond Williams Foundation. Initially, it discusses some of the competing conceptions of education, work and society which underpinned the rise and fall of the liberal studies movement in FE. The paper then draws on data from a programme of interviews with former liberal and general studies (LS/GS) lecturers to focus on the ways in which different variants of liberal studies were, over time, implicated in inculcating certain forms of knowledge in vocational learners. Whilst it is acknowledged that LS/GS always represented contested territory and that it was highly variable both in terms of content and quality, the paper argues that, at least and under certain circumstances, liberal studies provided working-class learners with the opportunity to locate their experiences of vocational learning within a critical framework which is largely absent from FE today. This, it is argued, can be conceptualised as an engagement with what Bernstein described as ‘powerful knowledge’, and contrasts significantly with the experiences of vocational learners in contemporary FE

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