Through our work in education we are often drawn into discussions about careers and the future of assessment in UK schools.  Following one such discussion the question of terminology arose and plunged us into thought about the expectations of young people and how, over the generations, the descriptors we use for education and qualifications have changed with these expectations.

For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, a vocation is something that a person feels a particular ‘calling’ to pursue and, in the process of doing so, may be lucky enough to make a living for themselves.  The dictionary confirms this with: ‘a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, especially a divine call to the religious life’ and explains that the word originates from the Middle English vocacioun, Anglo-French vocaciun and Latin vocation.

For us then, a vocation is distinct from a career by the addition of the ‘calling’ bit.  Without this we are left with only the element that makes a living.  Having said this, we all know many people who have had and are having long and successful careers which they have grown to enjoy and sometimes even love.  However, they weren’t necessarily ‘love at first sight’ so, by our definition, they are careers and not vocations.

With this in mind, what surprises us is the modern use of the word ‘vocational’ to broadly describe less academic professional paths.  Today the term ‘vocational’ seems to be used to categorise job choices that would have previously been simply called ‘the trades’ – construction, accountancy, mechanics, and so on.   In days gone by you were either in the ‘professions’ or in the ‘trades’, it was pretty black and white.  But in the same way that so many other boundaries have become blurred and broken, the meaning of these words has changed.  

The dictionary definition of ‘vocational’ is ‘pertaining to or instruction/guidance in a ‘vocation’.  So the question is, when and how did a trade become a vocation?  For some people we’re certain a trade really is a vocation but all trades surely can’t be generally grouped in this way.

The history of vocational education dates back to the vision for technical schools contained in the Butler 1944 Education Act.  Through the 60s, 70s and 80s the availability of technical courses and apprenticeships grew and organisations like the City & Guilds were established.  From what we can find, the word ‘vocational’ first appeared officially in the mix with the announcement of the Technical & Vocational Employment Initiative in 1982 and from this stemmed what we recognise as NVQs and so on. 

So what else was happening in education during this period?  Margaret Thatcher was rewarding schools for academic performance with extra funding; corporal punishment was banned in state schools; low pay and the stress of the national curriculum was fuelling low morale and teacher strikes.  There are clearly many complexities to the evolution of education and the language we use to describe elements of that mix but we wonder if there is any correlation between the modern use of the word ‘vocational’, as a glamorisation of the traditional ‘trades’, and the 30 years of reform and restructure we have seen through various governments which continues today?



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