Dhaka, Bangladesh
The latest in a series of quickly forgotten vocational qualifications

The latest in a series of quickly forgotten vocational qualifications

I am thinking of starting a short series on the theme of "big education policy decisions that can't be dodged (but probably will be)". There are several jockeying for the top spot, but this month the honour should go to the future of vocational - now known by the government as technical - education. This perennial problem is back in the limelight after the recent squabble over T-levels and whether it is too soon to introduce the first three of these qualifications. But how many people know what a T-level is? I had to explain to my generally well-informed other half in advance of a TV appearance he was making with the also barely known minister for skills. As a governor of two secondary schools I can recall little discussion of the latest post-16 reforms. That may be because they will be rolled out primarily in further education colleges - another poorly understood Cinderella sector of our education system. Putting skills and vocational education centre stage in the run-up to Brexit is obviously urgent, but the first three T-levels, in education and childcare, construction and digital, won't be introduced until 2020 and the permanent secretary at the Department for Education has urged ministers (in vain) to delay over content and delivery concerns. Failure to bridge the academic/vocational divide has bedevilled the English school system for generations and is helpfully documented in a new book, Other People's Children, improbably written by Barnaby Lenon, a former head of Harrow school, London. The 1944 tripartite settlement proposed technical schools that never happened; a series of quickly forgotten vocational qualifications, and permutations of the FE sector, came and went as frequently as education secretaries. Sir Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14-19 education resulted in a serious policy proposal - a baccalaureate-style wrap-around diploma to include vocational and academic paths and attempt to overcome the parity of esteem issue - but was swatted away in an instant as a threat to the gold standard A-level. In the subsequent 15 years we have had Ed Balls's short-lived diplomas and the Wolf review of vocational education, which rightly abolished a swathe of meaningless qualifications. The most recent investigation by Lord Sainsbury led to the plan for 15 "world class" alternatives to academic routes. The twin-track approach will include T-levels - classroom-based training programmes - and work-based apprenticeships, whose numbers appear to be plunging already. Meanwhile GCSEs and A-levels are still standing and remain the qualification of choice in a financial climate where FE colleges are underfunded, schools must fight ferociously to retain their post-16 students and there are questions over the quality and availability of suitable teaching staff for the new wave of technical study. Like many others I sincerely hope this latest heave works, but I suspect we will be having the same conversation about technical education in 10 years' time. Nothing about the T-level/apprenticeships route convinces that the parity of esteem issue will be overcome - maybe only a baccalaureate-style qualification can do this? But even then, we may still be missing the point. In another fascinating book, Natural Born Learners, former teacher Alex Beard travels the globe exploring innovative and often conflicting approaches to the question of how and what young people should learn in the 21st century to meet the challenges of globalisation, automation, artificial intelligence and political, cultural and economic polarisation. His journey takes the reader a long way from the content specification needed to become a hairdresser or a plumber and, important as it may be to have hairdressers and plumbers, poses some challenging questions about the skills and education needed for the future not the past. That is the big question that can't be dodged. Read the book and I will guarantee you come away thinking that in years to come we will look back on what is essentially another contortion of the post-industrial education settlement and think: "What a waste of time that was."

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