The destruction of vocational training is one of the many tragedies wrought by attempts at school reform over the past century. In fact, the destruction of vocational training is one of the key reasons why virtually all other forms of education in America, Britain, Sweden, and the transatlantic sphere are today in such a dismal state.
I will use my native Sweden as an example of what happened to vocational training.
As in America, most Swedes could both read and write centuries before most forms of education became a government concern. Sweden began implementing government schools for the general population from 1842 onwards. Children started school at age seven, and schooling was compulsory for six years. The schools employed traditional teaching methods, and by the time students were 12 or 13 years old, they knew more, in total than those who today finish high school (albeit in different subjects). On average they knew how to read and write, in addition to algebra, history, and civics - all arguably better than their modern, 19-year-old counterparts.
I say "arguably," because those who imposed a new school system upon Sweden made no comparisons, after initial work in the 1950s had demonstrated that the new school system had created negative results. (For more in this, see Sixten Marklund’s Skolan förr och nu - 50 år av utveckling and Hadenius, Karin. 1990. Jämlikhet och frihet: Politiska mål för den svenska grundskolan, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.) I have gathered much of the available evidence of the harm these policies inflicted in my book, Education Unchained. As an example of the educational level of workers who had six years of formal schooling (or less), look at their reaction to August Palm, one of the pioneering Social Democrats in Sweden in 1885:
Palm was born to be a popular agitator with his lively, not to say hot temper and engaging, drastic way of speaking, that captivated, sometimes fascinated his listeners. To reach a larger audience, Palm first tried his hand as a newspaperman in Malmö, but because of difficulties there, he established himself in earnest in Stockholm, where he founded the Social Democrat in September 1885.
Here, however, he had entered into an area that he did not master. The workers, who already then were trained and critical newspaper readers, were put off by the many grammatical mistakes, stylistic faults and coarse language in Palm’s articles. (Erik O. Löfgren. Oscar II, Sveriges historia genom tiderna IV. 1948. Stockholm: Saxon & Lindströms förlag, p. 396. Emphasis added.)
In contrast, lecturers at Uppsala University wrote that, in 2013, “Among the students who come to us right from high school, a majority has problems with the language.” Elsewhere, half of those who begin high school do not master the mathematics they were supposed to learn between the ages of 10 and 12. These are the results of students who focused on theoretical subjects. Those who pursue vocational studies did far worse on these tests.
In the old system in Sweden, after year 6, some like my father began to work, but a larger fraction went on to vocational training. Many attended municipal schools, which were of an exceptional standard because they had copied practices from the free market; that is, they taught actual job skills. Others went to large companies that provided vocational training, mixed with work and other educational subjects, on their premises.
These vocational schools took another four years, so people matriculated at 16 or 17 as highly skilled workers and craftsmen. However, with the “school reform” of 1962 and 1968, all this changed.
How vocational training was destroyed
In those years, the government decided that all children in Sweden should go to “junior high” and study only theoretical subjects. This immediately created chaos in schools during the seventh to ninth year of education. Traditional teaching methods were abandoned at this time, and allowing students to choose their own classes according to ability and interests became strictly prohibited.