Vocational Education – a cure for ADHD? by @ben_houlihan

Ok, so the title is perhaps a little suggestive but my understanding from reading blogs over the past few months is that this can help encourage people to click…which if you’re reading this has worked. However, it might not be a million miles from the truth.

Around a week ago I was reminded of a video that influenced and inspired me as an educator as well as opening my eyes to quite how social networks and ‘the new internet’ were going to change education. The talk was by Sir Ken Robinson and entitled ‘Changing Education Paradigms’, if you’ve not seen it I’ve posted the link below. I believe it really is a must watch for anyone involved in modern day education.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Houlihan and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I remember seeing this and beginning to question the purpose of education and whether it is in fact different for various groups of people and whether the new paradigm is that each individual needs an educational system and journey that works for them. At the time I was in the midst of completing my MA and only a few credits away from graduating so decided to make this the focus of my last assignment. I chose to examine the ‘school link’ provision that was offered within our institution and try to understand the motivation of different stakeholder groups involved within it. Most importantly I chose it because it had a reputation of consisting of individuals who were challenging to teach.

My research showed that many of these individuals had a low view of themselves and their ability because they had been consistently judged against an academic framework which didn’t work for them. Many of the young people I spoke to were very open about their ‘failings’ but perhaps more importantly a number of them said they hadn’t been successful at school because they suffer from ADHD.

This supports the idea presented by Ken Robinson in a number of his talks and publications where he states that students are encouraged to conform in order to be seen as successful.

sir ken

(Robinson , 2010)

For the record, I’m not claiming that schools made all students with ADHD attend link programmes to get them out of the classroom but many of the behavioural and engagement issues had been linked to the condition. The image above, taken from the afore mentioned TED talk, shows the question raised by Sir Ken where prescription drugs to control ADHD were more regularly prescribed in different parts of America, suggesting that the ‘epidemic’ of ADHD worsened the further east you travelled. I’m sure a similar picture would be found if we explored prescriptions across the UK.

I took time to talk to students on a range of school link programmes and one thing was clear – they loved their time at college! They felt more respected and subsequently respected the staff. When asked why they thought this was there were some simple things such as first name terms with staff, more interesting classrooms and workshops but…

The staff teaching these young people were all convinced that they were achieving and progressing in their learning and hoped that many of them would come and study the same subjects post-16. For some of these students this was the first time they felt like someone wanted them in their classroom, the first time someone had really told them how good they were…and for one individual that I talked to the first report home to his parents he couldn’t wait for them to read as it said he had a ‘bright future in construction’.

Staff teaching them made learning fun and contextualised to a subject or industry that interested the students. In an age where young people in particular find their curiosity and imagination stimulated in so many different ways the classroom and educators need to be at the forefront, and this doesn’t mean needing to use the latest technology all the time. It means providing an environment, content and assessment strategies that engage. I asked the staff if they felt they taught the school links programmes differently and the vast majority said they didn’t, many stated how they set out the same expectations with 14-16 year olds as with 16-19 and 19+.

The key is that the vocational nature of the subjects better suited these students, and therefore they behaved, engaged, achieved…and in most cases excelled.

The future of vocationalism

I thought this post might be particularly timely in light of the comments made by Sir Michael Wilshaw last week regarding the need for improvements in vocational education and I fully support his view that it [vocational education] should not be “a dumping ground for the disaffected and cater just for the lower-ability youngsters”.

As ever we are in the midst of change in FE, recently I have met students that were expected to achieve very high GCSE grades in core subjects such as maths and sciences and when I asked them about their next steps around half the group said they were either applying for apprenticeships or BTEC Engineering programmes.

We need to view school links programmes as a stepping stone to prosperous careers and not a route to get challenging students out of mainstream classrooms, there is nothing wrong with these students…apart from perhaps the mainstream curriculum they are being made to study. Maybe, we should tell all teachers they have to teach all lessons in the same way and see what response we get?


Robinson, K. (2010). Changing Educational Paradigms.  Available from [http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms] Accessed on 03 February 2016.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35343671 – BBC News item reporting comments from Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Featured image source: By Les Roches International on Flickr under (CC BY 2.0)

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