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Will Gove's vocational education revival work?

Laurie Laurie Thaves of the Local Government Information Unit says a dozen technology collleges is not enough

Councils from all parties have been giving Michael Gove a hard time over his radical plans to take local authorities out of education. There’s no doubt, however, that the man’s a decent, thoughtful speaker. Take his Edge Foundation lecture on Thursday. Predictably, for a politician, he kicked it off by blaming a previous government for the denigration of practical education in our education system. But Gove’s no ordinary politician. So the government he took to task wasn’t that of Tony Blair, or even Harold “White Heat” Wilson, but that of Lord John Russell in the mid-nineteenth century. He chastised the (admittedly defenceless) Peer for failing to follow up the Great Exhibition with a educational reform that would prepare people for engineering and other skilled trades. Instead, the education system focused on preparing “gentlemen” for colonial administration.

Gove argued that that this emphasis on preparing gentlemen for colonial administration was, ironically, responsible for fatally undermining the colonial project. While Great Britain had the administrators, it lacked the technical firepower. Meanwhile, Germany and the United States powered ahead of us. And, Gove argued, that’s more or less where we’ve stayed. He had warm words for Rab Butler, Lord Baker and Sir Mike Tomlinson but, it must be said, took a pretty dismal view of almost all other efforts to restore parity between vocational and academic education.

Gove reserved particular scorn for the last government. He had two main bug-bears. First, the “hollowing-out” of vocational education. The government had used frameworks and bureaucracy, he argued, to impose a narrow view of education that assumed that only academic learning was worth measuring. Practical learning was no longer seen as a worthwhile end of and in itself.

Second, he criticised the emphasis on securing a university place as the main goal of education. Far from being aspirational, he argued, this in fact confined less able students to a watered-down version of a liberal arts education. This condemned them to increasingly uncertain jobs in the foothills of the “knowledge” economy, such as the service sector, that are increasingly likely to be outsourced to other countries. Meanwhile, the “hands on” jobs that they could otherwise have been expected to take up have remained relatively secure. As Gove remarked, you can’t bang a nail in from India.

There’s much I agree with in Gove’s analysis. I think there’s a consensus that some children have ended up studying less challenging vocational qualifications because they help schools improve their results, but don’t do much for the students. However, I thought he was on a bit more uncertain ground when it came to his policy pronouncements.

First, he blamed league tables for pushing pupils into less challenging qualifications. He’s right. However, he then went on to say that he wanted to make the “English Bacc” a league table measure. If Gove is serious about improving school accountability, he needs to be far more radical. Fiddling with league tables won’t cut it. At the LGiU, we’d encourage him to think about how strengthening the role of school governors could help.  We’d also encourage him to think about the role local government can play. Clearly, Gove is concerned that councils will block his radical plans for education reform. In some cases, he’s probably right. But there are also a huge number of councillors who are committed to improving education in their area. Local government is pretty blue, so Gove needn’t extend his emulation of Blair to adopting an antipathy for local government.  It’s just unnecessary.

Second, Gove put a lot of faith in Lord Baker’s technology colleges. While they’ll doubtless be a boon for the twelve cities that get one, perpetuating the idea that vocational education is something that “goes on somewhere else” seems to undermine the whole logic of his approach. I’m sure that’s not his intention, indeed Lord Baker expressed his disappointment that grammar schools no longer did wood work, but I think there is a real risk that technology colleges will reinforce the atomisation that has been so damaging to vocational education.


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