Hands and minds

First-rate vocational training is more essential than ever, says Sally Feldman

October 18, 2012

England has got technical education wrong for 150 years,” wrote Lord Baker of Dorking in The Times earlier this month. He should know, since he was education secretary from 1986 to 1989. He blames successive governments for this failure - including his own. “The early socialists disliked technical colleges, since they would keep the working class in working-class jobs,” he argued. And ever since, they have been downgraded, buried or derided. The result is a massive skills shortage, at a time when a skilled workforce is vital for the coalition’s much-vaunted and so far dismal strategy for “growth”.

Two fairly recent educational policies have done nothing to halt the decline. The first was Margaret Thatcher’s initiative to grant university status to the polytechnics, and the second was Tony Blair’s ambition for 50 per cent of school-leavers to go into higher education. Both had seemingly democratic ambitions. And yet both, in some ways, have backfired.

Westminster is one of those new universities, and traces its roots to an institute founded in 1882 by Quintin Hogg, who established the polytechnic movement nationally and internationally. So I’m well aware of the successes of the post-1992 upstarts in widening participation to higher education, and in developing innovative academic disciplines. But there have also been huge losses. Senior scholars and academic leaders including Alison Wolf and Eric Robinson - who promoted the development of the polytechnics and saw them as “people’s universities” - were passionately opposed to their demise. Both argued that, in giving the polys the autonomy to act like universities, some of their original and vital work in technical training was lost.

What has happened is that both of these moves have established more firmly than ever the honours degree as the gold-standard - really the only standard - higher qualification. So if you are a talented web designer, musician, artist or electrical engineer you must go to university whether or not you have academic ambitions. A glaring example of how badly this can backfire is the situation at London Metropolitan University - renowned for its diverse student population but also for its very high dropout rate. Some of those failing students might have benefited from routes more suited to their skills, and done better at a more vocational institution.

But now, it appears, we have a society that seems to over-value concepts at the expense of skills. A report published earlier this year by the NHS Future Forum warned that nurses’ education relied too much on academic qualifications, rather than on social and caring skills. And the British Fashion Council has recently lamented the lack of technical skills, despite the burgeoning number of undergraduate fashion courses.

At a time when you can make a hit record in your bedroom and produce whole feature films on your phone, it seems perverse that we pay so little heed to the value of skills. Nowhere is this prejudice more prevalent than in universities, where technicians occupy a subordinate place in the hierarchy. They are treated as lower status because they work with their hands, yet they help students develop their technical skills in a way that few academics could.

It’s a matter of social class. We are educating a generation who, with the sense of entitlement that comes with a degree, are equipped to manage, to strategise, to tell others what to do without having the hard skills to go with their soft ones. And with graduate unemployment at a record high, it’s not a preparation that is helping us out of recession.

Baker’s solution is an inspired one. Just over five years ago he, with the late Ron Dearing, set up the movement for university technical colleges (UTCs) for 14- to 18-year-olds. Sponsored by universities in partnership with businesses, they offer a balance of 40 per cent practical training with 60 per cent academic programme of GCSE subjects including English, maths and science for students aged 14-16, with the ratio reversing for the final two years. The five colleges already open are showing dramatic improvements in these subjects because they are integrated into the technical instruction. The qualifications these students gain will equip them for further study or, crucially, for meaningful apprenticeships.

Baker argues that 14 is the right age for students to begin to acquire technical education, and that we should follow the mainland European system, which recognises a distinction between upper and lower secondary at 14. Austria, which has Europe’s lowest youth unemployment rate, has separate 14-18 colleges.

It’s a model welcomed in the report of Wolf’s review of vocational education, published last year. A key recommendation is that young people should be incentivised to take the most valuable vocational qualifications pre-16, while removing incentives to take large numbers of vocational qualifications to the detriment of core academic study. Another emphasises the value of apprenticeships.

Both requirements are suited to UTCs. So it’s encouraging that the coalition, which commissioned the Wolf Report and welcomed its findings, has now approved 28 more UTCs. It’s too early to evaluate their contribution to the economy, or to address our gaping skills shortage. But they represent a radical shift in approach to technical education.

One stumbling block remains, though. In our class-ridden society, will these vital skills ever be recognised as equal to traditional academic ones? I used to gaze out of the window of the art studio in Harrow at the hill where the spire of the famous English public school would loom over us. I liked to imagine the straw-hatted future cabinet ministers longing, wistfully, for a place on one of my courses.

The change in attitudes will come about only when their headmaster recommends that they transfer to a university technical college to gain a first-rate education. And that, I suspect, may not happen any time soon.

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