It’s not simply an academic question - why we need radical reform of vocational education
It’s a special pleasure to be here at this Edge event. No organisation has done more to champion the cause of vocational education and never has your clear, consistent, challenging voice been required more than now.
And it’s particularly pleasing to be here alongside my colleague John Hayes. No-one in Parliament has done more to champion the importance of vocational education than John. Over the last five years he has developed a coherent programme of reform for further education, he has made a compelling case for elevating the practical in our education system and I am delighted he is now a joint Department for Education and BIS Minister responsible for vocational learning. John is an old friend of mine and I am, frankly, jealous that he has a new admirer in Vince Cable, but so valuable is he that I am more than happy to live with a situation where there are three of us in this relationship.
A historical problem
Most new governments tend to complain about problems they inherited from their predecessors. And given our own inheritance it’s not surprising that we should be the same. Today I want to address head-on a problem that we’ve been bequeathed by the previous Government - of Lord John Russell. Lord John Russell was Prime Minister between 1846 and 1852. As the leader of a coalition of Whigs and Radicals there is much to recommend him. But it was on his watch that we as a nation first tried, and failed, to solve a problem which bedevils us still.
The problem is our failure to provide young people with a proper technical and practical education of a kind that other nations can boast. It was a problem identified by the German-born Prince Albert, the driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851, and it was a problem the Royal Commission of 1851 was designed to address.
Although Britain had been the first country to industrialise, and although, with the abolition of the Corn Laws, we were poised to benefit from the massive expansion of free trade, we were already falling behind other nations in our capacity to inspire and train the next generation of engineers, technicians, craftsmen and industrial innovators.
Whether in Germany or America, new competitors were eroding our inherited advantage. But while the problem was correctly identified as far back as 1851, the steps necessary to address this failing were not sufficiently radical. Ever since then there have been a series of failed governmental interventions, too numerous to list, none of which got to the heart of the matter.
160 years after the Great Exhibition was planned, the same problems which inspired its creation remain. Our international competitors boast more robust manufacturing industries. Our technical education - which the original Royal Commission and endless subsequent commissions and reviews identified as the fundamental problem - remains weaker than most other developed nations. And, in simple terms, our capacity to generate growth by making things remains weaker.
My colleagues George Osborne and Vince Cable have both made the case, with force, coherence and intelligence that our economic recovery depends on a manufacturing renaissance. Given the devastation wrought on our economy by the events of the last three years the need to drive private-sector growth is urgent and overwhelming. And that depends on a reform of our education system which addresses our long-term weakness in practical learning.
At crucial moments in the development of our education system the opportunity to embed high-quality technical routes for students was missed.
As Corelli Barnett has persuasively argued, the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy at the time of educational expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was disdainful of the practical and technical. While our competitors were ensuring that engineers, technicians and craftsmen were educated to the highest level, British - and specifically English - education reflected an inherited aristocratic disdain for trade. The highest goal of education was the preparation of young men for imperial administration, not the generation of innovation.
But as Barnett has argued, a neglect of the type of education which sustains economic growth and technical progress fatally weakened the empire which was the administrative elite’s pride and joy. Barnett’s analysis of Britain’s historic decline relative to its competitors gathers force as he surveys the decisions taken after the Second World War. We failed to modernise economically in those years. And we failed to make all the changes we should have in education.
In particular, one of the most promising potential reforms envisaged by the last coalition Government was neglected. The visionary wartime education minister Rab Butler appreciated the importance of technical education and hoped to see the creation of a new generation of technical schools in the postwar years. But underinvestment and a plain lack of elite interest meant hardly any technical schools were ever opened. Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard have argued - in their insightful book on the class system - that this represented one of the gravest errors in the history of the English education system.
Anyone looking at the decline of manufacturing in the postwar years, the spectacular failure of Britain to match the level of technical innovation in the countries we defeated and the continuing low levels of achievement of those outside the academic elite could not but conclude that we had failed as a nation.
The missed opportunity
The seeds of a solution were put in place by the last Conservative Government with the introduction of a modern apprenticeship programme - a programme this Coalition Government wants to grow rapidly. But under the last Government practical and technical education lost its way. And that is because, despite all the rhetoric, their heart wasn’t in it.
By heart I mean a passionate understanding of, and commitment to, the joy of technical accomplishment, the beauty of craft skills, and the submission to vocational disciplines which lie at the heart of a truly practical education.
Instead of celebrating the particular, instead of respecting the unique value of specific skills, instead of working with the grain of both human nature and recognising the differing difficulties inherent in acquiring mastery of certain processes, practical education has been robbed of its specialness.
The result was a system that was pasteurised, homogenised, bureaucratised and hollowed out. Everything was reduced to fit tables of achievement. Narrow metrics meant that everything practical was brigaded into specific silos and success was judged on the sheer number of young people who could be processed through the system rather than giving proper attention to what they had learned.
The dangerous preoccupation with quantity over quality was most evident in the response to the Leitch Review. The Review envisaged a demand-led system in which young people and employers together set the pace for the growth in proper training, in a way which met both their needs. But the response to this invitation to let go was a whole new suite of national targets for the quantity of qualifications taken.
One of the dangers of this approach was that by ignoring the value of skill in itself they fell into the trap clearly identified by the philosophers Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett in their wonderful books The Case for Working with Your Hands and The Craftsman. That was ignoring the inherent value of craftsmanship; what Crawford calls the ‘intrinsic richness of manual work - cognitively, socially, and in its broader physical appeal’.
And at the same time very little time was devoted to thinking about what young people on vocational courses actually learn. Some qualifications that were called vocational are actually pseudo-academic: attempting to recreate the cognitive skills associated with the accumulation of abstract knowledge rather than developing the entirely different but equally rich cognitive skills associated with practical and technical learning.
Insecurity about the real value of craft meant that vocational learning was, in some people’s eyes, legitimised by being made academic.
Qualifications, once tailored to the requirements of employers have become increasingly detached from their needs and, instead, driven by the preoccupations of public policymakers. That needs to change.
The last Government also fell into the trap of assuming that globalisation meant that in an economy like ours, hard and practical craft skills were being remorselessly superseded by abstract knowledge working. But the development of information technology does not mean that every job is digitised and the future for everyone is Orange as an employer.
As the economist Alan Blinder argues, the crucial distinction in the labour market in the future will be between ‘personal services’ that require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site and ‘impersonal’ services that can be provided from anywhere. He points out that many knowledge-worker jobs such as accountancy, computer programming, even radiography can be outsourced to companies in far-off countries. These professional jobs are increasingly vulnerable while practical employment is increasingly secure. As he puts it, ‘you can’t hammer a nail over the internet’. Nor indeed take blood, serve a Michelin-starred meal, look after a deeply disabled child, or repair a £2000 mountain bike.
Because, as well as providing us with the technicians, industrial innovators and craftsmen and women of the future, proper vocational education also needs to provide us with the courses and qualifications to underpin the future success of chefs and childcare workers, beauticians and care assistants, landscape gardeners and fashion photographers. And our current education system has, far too often, not been providing the right courses and qualifications. The growth in what are called vocational qualifications in our schools has actually, in many cases, been an inflation in the number of quasi-academic courses.
Growth or inflation?
A superficial look at the statistics would suggest a renaissance in vocational learning over the last few years unprecedented in human history. In 2004, 22,500 vocational qualifications were taken in schools. By 2009 this had risen to 540,000 - mostly at age sixteen - a 2,300% increase. But looking behind these figures we discover that many of these qualifications are not quite the hard, practical, immersion in the craft and technical skills or the skilfully designed preparation for the modern world of work some of us might have imagined.
And looking at the timescale over which this massive surge has occurred it is striking that it all follows the decision of the last Government to fix the value of some of these qualifications so they counted in league tables. Since I have been Education Secretary I have been struck by the concern among many employers, many higher education institutions, many parents and many headteachers that the rapid growth in the take-up of some of these qualifications is indeed less a reflection of their inherent worth than a function of the value they have been given for league table purposes.
Some of these qualifications badged as vocational enjoy a ranking in league tables worth two or more GCSEs, making them attractive to schools anxious to boost their league table rankings. And that has meant that some schools have been tempted to steer students towards certain qualifications because it appears to be in the school’s interests even when it’s not in the student’s.
This has to be changed. Qualifications do not gain prestige simply by having a Government minister announce that they are a good thing. And the labour market does not have much respect for the ability to answer multiple-choice tests dealing with ephemeral facts about some occupational field - the sort of thing which has become far too common in our over-regulated education and training system. Employers do, and for good reason, value a whole range of practical skills, and practical experiences, which go far beyond the confines of the most demanding A level papers.
Indeed one of the unhappy trends which actually grew in force over the past 13 years was the assumption that the purely academic route was really always the preferred one - and unless you’d secured a place on leaving school to study at university for three years you were somehow a failure.
These assumptions undermine social cohesiveness because, in a big society, unless each feels valued and all feel valued, then the conferral of value is imperfect. And they also limit opportunity.
The benefits of the practical
The truth is that there are practical routes - workplace courses, apprenticeships - which are far more secure routes to success than many university courses and which are, understandably, hugely popular with savvy learners.
The best apprenticeships programmes are massively oversubscribed. BT typically has 15,000 applicants for 100 places each year. Rolls-Royce has ten applicants for every place and Network Rail is similarly oversubscribed. There is far greater competition for some of these courses than there is for places at Oxford or Cambridge. And there’s good reason for this. These types of courses offer a route to good salaries and quick promotion at world-beating firms.
Whenever I meet the bosses of firms like these they tell me that their employees who trained as apprentices first perform better and secure promotion faster than their colleagues who arrive fresh from university. What’s more, many of the best courses - like those offered by BT - hold open the door for further study in higher education at a later point during their career, if they want to. At BAE 65% of their apprentices go on to higher learning and 10% go on to higher education.
And irrespective of whether these apprentices go on to higher education in due course, they are powering the success of the businesses on which our economy depends. However seductive marketing, advertising, sales, promotion or corporate social responsibility work may be for the academically inclined, these roles don’t exist unless there is something hard to market, advertise, sell, promote or be responsible about.
And that depends on making things. Which we won’t do in the future unless we train more people to master practical and technical skills at the highest level. What we need are more apprenticeships which follow the model of Rolls-Royce, BT and BAE rather than the rebadging of classroom courses and less rigorous work experience schemes as apprenticeships.
That is why I am so delighted that Vince Cable, David Willetts and John Hayes have secured additional funding to help the private sector grow the number of high-level apprenticeships and it’s also why I am working with John to ensure we can reduce the bureaucracy which employers have to negotiate before they can take on more new apprentices.
But if we are to ensure more and more students are capable of benefitting from a growth in apprenticeship numbers we have to take action to improve vocational education before people leave school. We have to have courses, qualifications and institutions during the period of compulsory schooling which appeal to those whose aptitudes and ambitions incline them towards practical and technical learning.
Reform in every area to elevate the practical
We’re already using our radical schools reform programme to promote new institutions designed to support high-prestige technical education with a clear link to employment and further study.
The university technical colleges - a model developed by my great reforming predecessor Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing - tick all the boxes.
The idea is very straightforward: technical colleges will offer high-quality technical qualifications in shortage subjects like engineering. They will do so as autonomous institutions - legally they will be academies - sponsored by at least one leading local business and a local university.
The pattern for their success has already been set by the new JCB Academy in Staffordshire, which I was privileged to be able to visit earlier this year. It combines hard practical learning - with courses in technical subjects involving applied work of the most rigorous kind - alongside a series of academic GCSEs - including maths, English, science and a foreign language.
If one looks at those countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught and assessed alongside - not in place of - technical learning until students reach 15 or 16. To take the example of Holland where children can move onto a technical route at twelve - all 16-year-olds are assessed in foreign languages, arts, sciences, maths and history. Our country is sadly unique in the poverty of its aspiration for all young people.
That’s why earlier this week I floated the idea of an English Baccalaureate - a new certificate for all children who achieve a good GCSE pass in English, maths, a science, a modern or ancient language and a humanity like history or geography. It would also act as a new league table measure to encourage schools to give all young people a broad and rounded base of knowledge. I was deeply alarmed to discover that just 15% of children would currently achieve this set of five good GCSEs. We have to do better.
But it’s crucial to note that securing this core base of knowledge would not preclude the study of technical or vocational subjects as some have suggested. It’s not either/or but both/and. I’m absolutely clear that every child should have the option of beginning study for a craft or trade from the age of 14 but that this should by complemented by a base of core academic knowledge.
And the new generation of university technical colleges - by taking students from other schools at the age of 14 - will help secure this route. When we open a new UTC in Aston in 2012 pupils will specialise in engineering and manufacturing alongside core academic GCSE subjects. Crucially, students will have the opportunity to work with Aston University engineering staff and students as well as local businesses and further education colleges.
Our aim is to open at least twelve UTCs with a minimum of one in each major city. And we know there is huge demand out there for this kind of institution from local authorities and businesses who understand the benefits that this type of school would bring to their community. Lord Baker has also done a fantastic job of winning over major international firms and universities, creating a real head of steam behind the model.
UTCs are a fantastic innovation but they aren’t the only type of institution that will benefit from our radical reform plans.
I’m also incredibly excited by the studio schools movement. The first two studio schools - based on groundbreaking work by the Young Foundation on employability - have just opened in Kirklees and Luton.
These schools will offer both academic and vocational qualifications and are explicitly designed to break through the traditional divide by providing an aspirational but practical pathway that will offer a broad range of qualifications and a clear route either to employment or university. Our Free Schools programme will allow communities across the country - supported by the superb Studio Schools Trust - to bid to open this type of institution.
And we anticipate many more Free School proposals will come forward which focus on offering high-quality vocational and technical education. In Sweden, post-15 practical education has been the fastest growth area for Free Schools in recent years.
So there are already many things this Coalition Government is doing to boost vocational education. But we want to apply these same principles - a focus on the quality of qualifications and courses as well as quantity and the prioritisation of clear progression routes to further education or employment - to the wider system.
Which is why I’m absolutely delighted today to be able to announce that Alison Wolf - the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London - has agreed to lead a review into pre-19 vocational education. She is probably the leading expert in the country on skills policy and has advised, among others, the OECD, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Ministries of Education of New Zealand, France and South Africa, the European Commission and the Bar Council.
This review will be very different from previous efforts. It is not going to lead to yet another set of unwieldy, Whitehall-designed and short-lived qualifications, or a new set of curriculum quangos. Instead, we want to establish principles, and institutional arrangements, which will encourage flexibility and innovation. We want qualifications to respond easily to changing labour market demands - and to demand excellence in ways which are true to the skills and occupations concerned.
Finding ways to achieve these goals has never been more important. As the pace of globalisation quickens the ability to offer a genuine and high-quality technical education to young people in this country is no longer simply a desirable social goal but a pressing economic necessity.
It won’t happen by inflating league tables or setting new central targets but only by investing in institutional and structural solutions which provide clear routes to good jobs and further educational opportunities.
It’s asking a lot of Alison, Lord Baker, the Studio School Trust and Edge to help solve a problem that generations of politicians and policymakers - from Lord John Russell onwards - have been unable to grasp. Though I cannot think of any other team I would like to see rising to one of the greatest historical failings of our education system than one led by Alison and Ken.