I gave a talk to over 200 experts in vocational education this week and got a round of applause a few minutes in because I had a go at Professor Alison Wolf, Gove’s lapdog, for devaluing 3100 vocational courses in schools culling them to only 70 accepted courses. How could the person responsible for a recent report that called for parity between academic and vocational learning be responsible for this unprecedented attack on the very thing she said she supported? It’s simple, she’s a hired idealogue, hand-picked by Gove to further his attack on state education. Gove’s a politician who acts on whim, Wolf has a long track record in right-wing stances on education.
Even hard-nosed, free-market CEOs were astonished at the stupidity of the move. Rather than readjust the parity between GCSEs and these qualifications, which would have been easy, he attacked and destroyed the very credibility of vocational education in schools, creating an imbalance that will take decades to reverse. They took a scythe to qualifications that people have worked for years to develop, in particular the Diploma in Engineering, developed with serious employers such as Siemens, Boeing, Toyota, Rolls Royce, Sony and JCB - so much for employer recognition.
What the Wolves and Goves don’t really understand is the degree to which young people are often reignited in education by doing something they see as relevant. More than this, many go on to become entrepreneurs, as they start their own businesses. The Wolves and Goves have no real understanding of entrepreneurship. In a time of riots, financial crises, recession, soaring unemployment, especially among the young and suspicion about the cost and relevance of Higher Education, surely we could have held the Wolf from the door by protecting our progress on vocational education? How do you think the young people doing these qualifications feel when they hear people on television and in the press describe their qualifications as “Micky Mouse” or “dead-end” qualifications. It’s shameful.
Thrown to the Wolves
Professor Wolf is, of course, an ideologue. What’s more the she-Wolf gave birth to another she-Wolf, who is even more of an ideologue – Rachel Wolf. Rachel has no academic background in education, had barely finished as an advisor, first to Boris Johnson then Michael Gove, when at the tender age of 25, she suddenly received from Gove, a cool half million of funding. This was for a charity she had started just a year earlier, called the New Schools Network, advising on ‘free-schools’. There was, of course, no tender - clearly an inside job. Let’s be clear here - this was a lobbying organisation that received direct government funds to advise on educational policy. I should add that this ‘charity’ refuses to name its other benefactors. I wonder why? Could they include some private sector interests in school networks? And yes, you’ve guessed it, there’s a daddy Wolf. Martin Wolf, the well-connected, right-wing chief economics columnist for the Financial Times. This is an Oxbridge family wildly removed from the real world of vocational employment. It would seem that the fate of millions of young people has been thrown to the Wolves.
The real problem
Alison Wolf confused cause and effect. The real cause of the problem is the league tables. Make rankings your goal and people will find a way of climbing them, even if it to the detriment of the students and the value of qualifications. Academics do it all the time. The so-called Times Universities rankings is only a reflection of successful research applications and says nothing about teaching (the supposed 30% for teaching has no direct measurement of teaching and uses irrelevant proxies). A curious side-effect of this cull is to show that Academies will plummet in the league tables, as last year they had only 7% of students achieve the Ebacc, against 13% for comprehensives. Their own flagships are being thrown to the wolves.
The real solution
The solution was to establish parity or equivalence, not eliminate one side of the equation altogether. If we had taken the advice of Tomlinson all those years ago we would have true parity and not this Middle England, Downton Abbey attitude towards vocational education as ‘trade’, something to be seen as ‘second-best’ even despised as a lower-class pursuit. Sheer snobbery is at the root of this problem.
We now find ourselves in the truly absurd position, when the country is facing massive problems with growth and employment, of valuing Latin above ALL vocational qualifications. For me, the defence of Latin as a worthwhile core subject is the touchstone for snobbery and the sheer refusal to accept research findings. I used to think that education was stuck in the 19th century, I never imagined, that a decade into the 21st century, we’d be taking things back to the 1st century BC!
To be frank, we’re sitting on a social time bomb and rather than showing leadership, a narrow cabal of academics, journalists and politicians, are shortening the fuse.
Great post, Donald. I've mentioned it on Twitter. Have you thought about/Is it possible to put one of those buttons on your blog that enable readers to share it on Twitter, Facebook etc.?
Donald, it's shocking that vocational qualifications and the very real practical experience they provide young people is seen as inferior to more abstract academic work. Perhaps these blunt attempts to go back to "core values" will sufficiently undermine the status quo and we will see a re-invention of the educational experience which is a more relevant fusion of intellectual development and practical application. Or am I trying too hard to look for the positive in this?
Every meeting of educationalist's I've attended in the last two years has seen people throwing their hands up in horror at the changes Michael Gove has introduced. But outside that arena Gove seems to go unchallenged.
This is another, in a series of great posts, that really expose the paucity of ideas and innovation coming out of all government's. Education needs champions to take the fight to a national stage. I'd love to see Donald on Question Time!
What's weird is the lack of anger and visibility from the educational establishment - academics, unions, CEOs of educational institutions etc. My theory is that they're all buckling down hoping to get their OBE, CBE etc. They seem spineless.
Interesting post as always. Don't you agree, however, that the engineering diploma should not equal 5 GCSEs in the league tables? As you say, though, the league tables are the problem here.
I do, and major employers also seem to think so. The Foundation Diploma is a level 1 qualification, equivalent to five GCSEs grade D–G this has been conveniently forgotten). It has breadth and depth including maths, English, ICT, a range of engineering courses and a project, with specialism options. It's tough. In any case what should have happened is a readjustment not a cull.
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