Most of what we mean by a training-based subject is essentially procedural and the so-called vocational subjects, e.g. law, plumbing, tourism, mechanical fitting, office practice, manual skills generally, are to be found towards the right of Figure 1.  Most of these subjects embody rules and procedures which are dependent to a considerable degree on the technology of the day (e.g. consider the changes in the last ten years in office or machine shop practice).  This means that such training can have a short life-span and therefore systematic updating is necessary.

Most of what we recognise as academic subjects though can form the basis of vocational careers because they are essentially analytical (this applies to the arts subjects as to the sciences).  Analysis is not the only thinking process involved, but it is the most important in practice.  Employers of all kinds often find analytical ability to be the single most valuable asset a person can have, because it is by far the most powerful means we have of solving problems.  But analysis without facts and proven methods and laws is vain.

3          Facts and Consequences of the Spread of Abilities

While not necessarily so immediate in application, academic subjects have a wider vocational range than training-based subjects.  As illustrated by Figure 1, no subject is entirely procedural or entirely analytical, but the ability to tackle the heavily analytical subjects is limited to relatively few as the contours suggest.  It is in fact sometimes forgotten how rapidly the spread of intellectual ability displays itself with the age of the pupil.  This spread is indicated in Table 1.

Chronological Age 1 in 7 of the population of children are, in mental capacity, about 1 in 40 are, in mental capacity, about
7 1 year ahead/behind 2 years ahead/behind
11 1.5 years ahead/behind 3 years ahead/behind
14 2 years ahead/behind 4 years ahead/behind

Table 1: Spread of Mental Abilities

The attempt therefore in the current philosophy and in the National Curriculum to educate all children in the same subjects at virtually the same level up to the age of 16 is extraordinarily futile – like trying to push water uphill – particularly when it is recalled that for every child who is two years ahead of the average, there is a child two years behind.

The major requirement we have is to make our system match the spread of abilities and the needs of our economy, which in turn means that most people will best move to the right in Figure 1 – where indeed most of the jobs in a modern economy actually are.

In order that pupils can actually progress across the terrain of Figure 1 to real jobs, teachers must be matched to pupils. In Table 2 (derived from Ref 1) are given the annual outputs of graduate mathematicians and physicists per 10,000 pupils 6-18 in the USA, Japan and UK.

Discipline USA  Japan  UK 
Maths 2.4 1.1 4
Physics 0.7 1 2.4

Table 2: Output of graduate scientists and mathematicians 1983

It may be seen that if, as alleged by the SEE, the UK is starved of graduates capable of teaching mathematics and physics at school level, the situation in Japan must be absolutely desperate and to a lesser degree in the USA.  Neither the USA nor Japan is noted for falling industrially behind the rest of the world. The only possible conclusion from these figures is that at school level in Japan, mathematics and physics are taught mainly by trained teachers, rather than by graduates in these subjects.  Indeed the Japanese with a much less sentimental view of human abilities than obtains in this country, would undoubtedly see it as an extraordinarily inefficient use of scarce resources to set the 1% minority, who have the inclination and ability to achieve a degree in physics or mathematics, to teach say the 60% majority, who have neither the need nor the inclination to progress beyond arithmetic and percentages – but need to know those things well.

An examination of the course syllabuses for the main teacher qualification, the B.Ed, reveals that arithmetic, for instance is unlikely in fact to be taught well.  Thus the DES (Department of Education and Science) found in a study (Ref 2) of the B.Ed in fifteen institutions, which included three polytechnics, that only about one third of the course (i.e. one year) was concerned with actual subject studies, the other two thirds being divided more or less equally between educational theory and what were termed ‘professional’ studies which did not however include more than about 10 weeks’ actual teaching practice.  Some of what might be called the real subjects – mathematics, physical science and French, were only being “maintained with difficulty” owing to “low recruitment rates”.  Bearing in mind that the bulk of teachers enter the profession by the B.Ed route, this position represents a very large mismatch of teacher training time to pupil requirements. 

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