Would you like relish with that A-level?

The idea that McDonald's could provide qualifications has prompted derision, but the ‘McDonaldisation’ of learning has already begun.

‘Black Monday’, with its economic chaos and confusion, was nothing compared with British PM Gordon Brown’s self-inflicted educational disaster of ‘McMonday’. Yesterday, 28 January, Brown announced the New Labour government’s latest educational wheeze: a proposal to allow the fast-food chain McDonald’s, the low cost airline Flybe, and Network Rail to award qualifications at school level. These were immediately dubbed ‘McA-levels’, ‘McGCSEs’; Network Rail is even thinking of offering doctorates in railway engineering: McPhDs, if you like. This is the first substantial move by the government to allow private companies to award British educational qualifications.

Brown introduced and defended these new awarding powers on GMTV early on Monday morning. He argued that the government was not dumbing down its qualifications, and companies like McDonald’s would ensure that standards would not fall and even ensure that the 51 per cent non-completion rates for apprenticeships would be tackled. John Denham, secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, said it was an important step towards ending the division between company training schemes and national qualifications (1). Nick Gibb, the opposition Conservative Party school spokesperson, was enthusiastic, too, arguing that: ‘They may well be better vocational qualifications… because they relate to the real world of work.’ (2) Even the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) considered that ‘employer-led qualification routes with a specialised vocational background may prove a valuable route into higher education’ (2).

A proposal to offer qualifications with about as much intellectual nourishment as a Big Mac should have upset public sector unions, teachers and educationalists. However, initial criticism has been muted and technical. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), expressed some concern about giving private companies the power to award educational qualifications and demanded that they meet stringent requirements. Others questioned the new qualifications’ academic rigour; their transferability to other workplaces; whether they would be accepted by other employers; and whether they could devalue traditional qualifications.

The muted criticism is easily explained: ever since the government commissioned the Tomlinson Committee report in 2005, there has been a broad base of support for its proposed radical overhaul of qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds, and for the aim of eventually replacing A-levels with a personalised ‘Diploma’ (3). Careful readers of the Tomlinson report would have noted that Carmel Flatley, the director of human resources and training at McDonald’s, worked for a time as a member of the committee (4). The Tomlinson report suggested vocational routes for children as young as 14 to allow those with vocational rather than academic interests to follow their inclinations. Educationalists have accepted the government’s argument that Britain faces a major skills gap and needs to ensure that young people have the skills, often ‘learning to learn’ skills, that would serve them well in the new world of work. However, Tomlinson’s much-heralded reform proposals were not implemented. The New Labour government, then under Tony Blair, seemed to lack the confidence to bring in such sweeping changes; instead it kept the ‘gold standard’ of A-level qualifications, which were seen as academically respectable.

One of Gordon Brown’s first acts when he became prime minister in June was to split the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) into the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). The missing word in the titles of these reorganised departments was ‘education’. This was more than trendy re-branding. It showed how the government has undermined the idea and the essence of Education, of knowledge and learning, and replaced it with Skills instead. When the emphasis is on can-do skills rather than abstract ideas and thinking, it makes sense to transfer ‘educational training’ over to the business world and to transform universities into ‘training institutions’ for the world of work.

Following ‘McMonday’, the newspapers were full of references to ‘McQualifications’. ‘What a joke!’ commentators proclaimed; or as one union official put it: ‘Nothing is stranger than life!’ McDonald’s is, of course, the brand that every member of the chattering classes loves to hate. And it helps that it is easy to play the McDonaldisation Game by adding the ‘Mc’ prefix to everything one dislikes about modern life. Yet in reality, the fundamentals of the McDonaldisation thesis - of applying efficiency, calculability, predictability and control to education - have already been accepted by almost everyone in the worlds of government, teaching and unions. Mocking McDonald’s and its new role in education is a way of avoiding the profound denigration of education that has already occurred, and which has brought us to this situation.

From seeing that fewer pupils are excluded from schools to ensuring that 50 per cent of the population go on to higher education: efficiency in education goes unchallenged today. Often this means making examination and assessment varied, or to be truthful, making them easier. Calculability, in terms of league tables, is questioned by some educationalists, but not by those who perform well in the tables. Predictability, in terms of common learning outcomes and standardised degrees, is now accepted by educationalists across the board. And the most threatening form of McDonaldisation - control, through the standardisation of teacher training in all sectors - is universally celebrated. This serious McDonaldisation of the education system has severely undermined the unpredictable, creative and exciting process of education, reducing it to a list of dull, predictable skills. It was the government that made education the equivalent of learning how to flip burgers - signing up McDonald’s was the next logical step.

There is no real opposition to the skill-crazy philistinism within education. Further Education (FE) lecturers have always taught skills, of course; but in the past they argued for something called ‘vocational education’. Now even former radical educators in Britain sneer at the idea of ‘education for its own sake’. This, too, is a product of the post-Tomlinson consensus. One of Tomlinson’s stated aims was to overcome the academic/vocational divide. This brought everyone on side as it seemed, particularly to radical educationalists, to provide parity for working-class children who might be more practical-minded and hence vocationally orientated. In truth, the removal of the academic/vocational divide looked more like a cover for the fact that many working-class children are not being provided with a first-class, gold-standard education; it was a way of selling out these children, effectively giving up on their educational aspirations, but it was dressed up to look like a radical move in favour of the ‘vocationally minded’.

It is the consensus over the need for a skill system that is bringing about the McDonaldisation of education. The irony is that the academic/vocational divide is being overcome: parity will finally be achieved when there are only vocational qualifications left.

Dr Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional education at Canterbury Christchurch University. His latest book Defending Higher Education: The Crisis of Confidence in the Academy (Routledge, 2008) will be out in March (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). He is also the editor, with Robin Wynyard, of The McDonaldization of Higher Education (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Dennis Hayes made the case for corporate universities. James Panton reported on a debate around the McDonaldisation of education and felt ‘good behaviour contracts’ infantilised students. Alan Hudson argued that the point to education should be the pursuit of knowledge. Jennie Bristow looked at Mary Evans’ critique of the ‘death of the university’. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) McDonald’s to serve up ‘A levels’, BBC News, 28 January 2008

(2) How courses ‘in the real world of work’ will be kept up to standard, The Times (London), 28 January 2008

(3) These measure are a radical packages, Guardian, 23 February 2005

(4) Dennis Hayes, Diploma? Is that with fries?, Times Educational Supplement, 10 June 2005

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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