The party's vocational education ideas are eye-catching, but need a little more thoughtby Laura McInerney / April 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
Vocational education has become a major issue, and one nobody knows how to solve—not even down-with-the-workers Labour. They’re still going to try though. Not least because it works well as part of Ed Miliband’s “we’re going to do the right thing” narrative, which neatly contrasts with Cameron’s “we’re going to do the tough thing.”
Labour’s education manifesto, which the party launched today in London, reflects that. Don’t get misty-eyed: the party’s education policies are not about “aspiration,” they are definitely about “employment.” Whimsical notions of dreaming spires are gone. In their place are pledges of “gold standard vocational education,” guaranteed apprenticeships, and face-to-face careers advice for secondary school pupils. If you want your kid to get a job, the subtext says, then we are on your side.
Some will cheer loudly at this shift. Careers advisors and work experience were lopped out of schools in the past few years, and further education budget cuts were brutal.
But do the new policies for this golden vocational path stand up?
Labour has “guaranteed” an apprenticeship for every student meeting grade requirements. That’s nice, but how they will get employers to sign up is still a mystery. When teaching in East London, the students I saw looking for apprenticeships often found themselves pitted against hundreds of others for only a few spaces.
Then there’s the careers advice saga. Sigh
Miliband wants to bring back “face-to-face” careers advisors who will sit down with pupils and plot a course through their future. Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said they would develop “relationships” with pupils. But 15-year-olds don’t develop deep bonds with random 40-year-olds they see for 20 minutes once in a blue moon. With a tiny budget of £50m, a smarter policy would scrap the face-to-face bit and instead develop online services using Skype or—even better—instant messaging (which is how most young people communicate anyway). Admittedly, this works best with curious, literate young people—who are not the ones struggling to get jobs—but surly teens will be just as hopeless at face-to-face meetings, too.
The promise of a “gold standard” vocational pathway, known as the Technical Baccalaureate, is indeed a Labour idea, and not a bad one—but it has already been stolen. Implemented by the Coalition in September last year, students in five colleges are currently completing a “Tech Bacc” which includes technical qualifications plus maths, literacy and an extended project.
Labour have also promised that every young person must study English and maths until they are 18. That sounds attractive and other countries have managed it—Hong Kong moved from only half of 18 year olds doing maths to almost all after they replaced their old A-level system with a “diploma” in 2012. But England has a perpetual maths teacher shortage and Labour are silent on how they would solve it. The Conservatives have somewhat desperately proposed giving £15,000 to A-level students who sign up to maths degrees with a teacher training component. Given that Labour have promised that only qualified teachers will be allowed to run classrooms, they need to come up with a patch for this problem—and fast.
As for work experience, Labour have promised to bring it back for 14 to 16-year-olds—and I have no idea what they are thinking. Health and safety regulations have banished most under-16s from interesting workplaces, and having visited umpteen pupils in the aisles of Sainsbury’s and the pot-washes of Pizza Hut, I’m unconvinced that the experience, as enjoyable as it is for some, is really worth the time out of school or the administration that goes into it. Compulsory work experience for 16 to 19-year-olds, particularly those on A-level courses, would be far more useful.
Ultimately, the education manifesto does hit vital messages. The few sections on schools emphasis “quality:” qualified teachers, more teacher training, small classes. On vocational education, there are guarantees, fancier sounding names, more advice, more “experiences.” It’s all quite worthy, but also a little pipe-dreamy and, in the current climate, some of it is really not that pressing. Despite what some lobbying organisations will tell you, the world hasn’t fallen down without careers advisors.
Still, if we are going to support young people in following their dreams then we may have to put up with politicians indulging in theirs too. Let’s just hope the implementation of it all doesn’t become a nightmare.