Skilling us softly

Vocational education is not education - and it doesn’t even work.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘Up with plumbers, down with media studies graduates!’ cries the UK Institute of Directors (IoD). ‘Up with graph-reading skills, down with algebra!’ cries the UK government.

The ongoing discussion about how education can best serve the workplace reveals a curious attitude to both education and work.

UK education secretary Estelle Morris has announced a review of maths teaching for students 14 and over. According to the Guardian, this is ‘likely to lead to a shake-up of the maths curriculum at GCSE, AS and A-levels to make it more “relevant” and “employer friendly”’ (1).

The Daily Mail claims that the government will ‘scrap algebra, trigonometry and geometry’ in favour of ‘more practical mathematics, including statistics, inflation rates and graphs’ (2). Credit card payment skills too, no doubt.

This review is just the latest in a long line of New Labour initiatives designed to modernise education around the perceived needs of business. Such initiatives rest on the assumption that the role of education is to produce future employees with the skills they need to apply in the workplace.

Traditional educational endeavours such as reading, writing and numeracy are recast in terms of ‘basic skills’; and as for anything else – if it isn’t directly relevant to the needs of the modern workplace, it should be treated as a lesser priority. Who needs French or geography when you can get a GCSE in travel and tourism instead? Who needs literature to deconstruct a novel when you can develop your IT literacy skills and construct your own webpage?

The obsession with boosting students’ employability – often at the expense of their intellectual development – clearly doesn’t bode well for the creation of future academics, poets, historians or Einsteins. Year after year, the UK’s elite universities bemoan the lack of knowledge and rigour among their intake of straight-A school-leavers. But the employability thing doesn’t even do a great deal to make students…well, employable.

Students are not machines, who can be programmed with the requisite skills that they then apply to their jobs; and education is not a process of inputting these skills. In developing young people’s minds, an all-round education should give them the ability to pick up the skills they need when they need them, and to work out problems both intellectually and practically. Education is a transformative process – and as such, a solid, academic secondary education is as crucial for the plumbers as it is for the poets. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the IoD seems to understand this.

Many of the IoD’s criticisms of education today are, in their own terms, right. Its report, Education and Training: A Business Blueprint for Reform, points the finger at the relatively unchallenging character of the GCSE – scathingly referred to as ‘“the exam no-one can fail”’; the ‘endemic grade inflation’ within both secondary and higher education; and the proposed expansion of higher education to take in 50 percent of young people, which would be likely to palm young people off on to courses that are neither vocationally useful nor academically challenging (3).

These are major problems, resulting from a culture that is obsessed with providing more qualifications for more people, yet gives them an education that is of a poorer and poorer quality.

But what does the IoD propose in terms of solutions? So far as academic education is concerned, it just wants to turn back the clock: ‘reverse’ the expansion of HE, ‘restore’ GCSE standards to ‘the mid-1980s GCE O-level and GCE A-level’ standards, ‘unequivocally replace’ progressive teaching styles and methods with traditional teaching styles and methods. The idea that the 1980s was some golden age of education is odd; the notion that you could drag the education system back to that is bizarre.

When it comes to the problem of the plumber-deficit, the IoD also has a point. As the government’s interest in vocational education has increased, proper training for skilled jobs – like plumbing or bricklaying – has become sidelined. Training used to take place after compulsory education, either on the job through apprenticeships, or in further education colleges. Nobody ever confused it with education.

Now, vocational courses have been put on a par with education, and much of this proper training has been supplanted by numerous courses in so-called ‘soft skills’ – aromatherapy and beauty, hairdressing, care work – for what never used to be considered skilled work. Many vocational courses are highly weighted towards generic skills, like group work and communication skills, which used to be considered the kind of things that employees would pick up in the course of their jobs. In all of this, the training needed for skilled work is devalued.

One straightforward way of addressing this problem would be to focus on the need for high-quality training for skilled work, to be provided after-compulsory education. Unfortunately, when it comes to its proposals for vocational education, the IoD seems to fall into the same trap as the government that it so bitterly criticises – namely, by emphasising the need for more skills training at a younger age.

The IoD objects to the current ‘“one size fits all” secondary education system’, and urges the need for ‘a thorough and practical vocational pathway that the development of vocational GCSEs and vocational A-levels will not, and cannot, meet’. In other words – separate the plumbers from the poets at 14, teach them the skills needed for the world of work, and send them out into the world to do something useful.

This approach not only indicates a rigid view of education. It also reveals a peculiarly one-sided view of work. How can a new wave of plumbers and other skilled craftsmen be created from a bunch of young people whose intellectual development has been prematurely curtailed? And if the kind of skills we’re talking about here are the soft skills currently on offer, what is the benefit of teaching them in the classroom?

The IoD recognises that teachers are best taught through experience: it bluntly states that ‘Teacher Training Colleges should be closed’. Yet it continues to complain about the skills deficit coming out from schools, and argues for vocational education for children once they hit 14, rather than letting them finish secondary school and then learn on the job.

Even when they are aware of the inadequacies of much of the vocational education provided today, employers have bought into it. Like the government, they tend to over-mystify the skills needed for work, and view the kind of soft skills developed in the course of one’s working life as something for which people need endless training and accreditation.

If employers had a bit more confidence in their ability to develop their staff, they might find it easier to tell the difference between real skills and general working life. And then they might leave the 14-year-olds alone.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) School leavers’ failings in maths lead to review, Guardian, 22 July 2002

(2) Daily Mail, 22 July 2002

(3) Education and training: a business blueprint for reform (summary), Institute of Directors

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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