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Vocational School Fallacy

Impact of the Vocational School Fallacy

Few articles in the field of international and comparative education have been as influential in academic circles and among some donor-agency personnel as Philip Foster's "The Vocational School Fallacy in Development Planning" (1965). This article went to the heart of the long-running (and continuing) debate about whether schools and their curricula can influence society through changing student attitudes towards jobs and work–or whether schools and their pupils are themselves much more influenced by the surrounding economy and by the patterns of work and rewards that exist in the surrounding urban and rural areas. During the period immediately following the independence of many African countries, it was commonplace to suggest that schools could deliver all kinds of attitude change (e.g., towards nation building, good citizenship, and rural development). Foster, however, argued that "schools are remarkably clumsy instruments for inducing large-scale changes in underdeveloped areas" (1965a, p. 144). Foster's message came at a time when a whole series of innovations were being introduced to deal with a sudden surge in unemployment in the developing world among those who had finished primary school, as well as the flight of young people from subsistence agriculture in rural areas. The most famous of these schemes was Education for Self-Reliance, developed by Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere.

Foster's warning about the limitations of schooling to change society arrived during the 1960s, a decade that saw many new and more instrumental approaches to schooling (from manpower planning to educational planning). These were frequently about engaging the schools in the creation of high-level manpower for the rapidly Africanizing civil service, but they also implied that schools could directly contribute to the modernization of traditional societies.

Foster's critique of these visions for engaging schools in the transformation of their surrounding societies was derived from an in-depth analysis of Ghana and from a detailed knowledge of its educational history prior to independence in 1957, when it was known as the Gold Coast. Foster was able to argue that, for well over a hundred years, Western education had been responsible for a massive amount of social change in this area, but that schools had very seldom functioned in the manner expected by the educators and the policymakers. In the new era of rational education planning and the new discipline of the economics of education (which involved looking at education as human capital and calculating the costs and benefits of different mixes of education), Foster's research was a vivid testimony to what he called the "unplanned consequences of educational growth" (1965b, p. 303).

At the heart of this debate lay the issue of vocationalism and its relationship to economic growth. Should not schools, the argument went, and especially those in predominantly agricultural societies where the formal sector of the economy could only absorb a very small proportion of the economically active population, keenly prepare young people with a substantial measure of the practical, agricultural, and technical skills needed for the transformation of their societies? Foster's answer was that, in Ghana, missionary societies, colonial governments, and the new independence government had frequently been attracted by the apparent logic of this position, and had sought to use schools in this instrumental way. But the plain truth was that "the educational history of the Gold Coast is strewn with the wreckage of schemes" based on these assumptions (1965a, p. 145).

Foster's explanation for these failures was that pupils are very realistic and are able to work out what is in their best career interests, regardless of the orientations schools seek to provide. In particular, he argued that schools had been very shrewdly used by pupils as a gateway to the modern sector of the economy–and as an escape from poor prospects in many rural areas. The core argument of the vocational school fallacy, according to Foster, is that "the schools themselves can do little about this. So long as parents and students perceive the function of education in this manner, agricultural education and vocational instruction in the schools is [sic] not likely to have a determinative influence on the occupational aspirations and destinations of students. Aspirations are determined largely the individual's perception of opportunities within the exchange sector of the economy, destinations by the actual structure of opportunities in that sector" (1965a, p. 151).

Impact of the Vocational School Fallacy

It could be argued that the vocational school fallacy is much better known by students and professors of international and comparative education than by policymakers in ministries of education. Policy-makers in many countries continue to be attracted by the possibility of using the school system to change young peoples' attitudes towards different kinds of work and employment. With the reduction in the number of good jobs in the formal sector of many African economies, the school system in the early twenty-first century is being asked to reorient young people towards skills for self-employment. Such optimism tends to be uninformed about the complexity of entering dynamic forms of self-employment.

One exception to the suggestion that policy-makers have been largely immune to the message of the vocational school fallacy can be found in the policies of the World Bank. There is strong evidence that acceptance of the vocational school fallacy was one reason why the World Bank, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, turned its back on its earlier widespread policy of supporting vocationalised, or diversified, secondary education.

The question of whether the vocational school fallacy is still relevant has been addressed in a study conducted by Kenneth King and Chris Martin during 1999 and 2000. This study sought to revisit in Ghanaian secondary schools the same questions and debates that Foster explored in post-independence Ghana. The results confirmed many of Foster's findings about the impact of the economy on education, but, intriguingly, they also suggest that there does, in fact, seem to be a substantial school influence on attitudes towards employment and self-employment and that this is connected in some way to the vocational options in school.


FOSTER, PHILLIP. 1965a. "The Vocational School Fallacy in Development Planning." In Education and Economic Development, ed. Arnold A. Anderson and Mary Jean Bowman. Chicago: Aldine.

FOSTER, PHILLIP. 1965b. Education and Social Change in Ghana. London: Routledge.

HEYNEMAN, STEPHEN P. 1985. "Diversifying Secondary School Curricula in Developing Countries: An Implementation History and Some Policy Options." International Journal of Educational Development 5 (4):283–288.

HEYNEMAN, STEPHEN P. 1987. "Curriculum Economics in Secondary Education: An Emerging Crisis in Developing Crisis." Prospects 18 (1) 63–74.

KING, KENNETH, and MARTIN, CHRIS. 2002. "The Vocational School Fallacy Revisited: Education, Aspiration, and Work in Ghana, 1959–2000." International Journal of Educational Development 22:5–26.


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