Post-18 education – a chance for the Lib Dems to make a real impact?

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The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP, has recently placed the Blair philosophy of ‘further education’ in doubt by saying that we are sending too many young people to ‘university’. You might say that this isn’t that surprising coming from a Tory, albeit one who was educated in a state comprehensive school.

However, quite a few people have been thinking this for years and some, like me, have been prepared to say it out loud. Does that make us bad people? Have we perhaps lost our way as a nation when it comes to equipping our young people with the knowledge and skills not only to make a success of their lives but also to make a valuable contribution to our nation’s future economic success?

We can’t keep relying on other countries to provide us with qualified people, whether they be doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers and engineers or bricklayers, plumbers and joiners. We have got to start producing more of our own home-grown material and not expect other countries to provide us with the qualified people we undoubtedly need. The same also surely applies in this uncertain age to manufactured goods.

It’s not that too many students attend university per se. Rather it’s that too many students are encouraged to study the kind of courses that might be good for their acquisition of knowledge in a field of their choice; but then leave them ill-prepared to find a satisfactory career afterwards. No offence intended; but some wag once said that we have the “highest qualified baristas in the world”.

The danger signs of the over expansion of higher, at the expense of further, education were clearly there nearly thirty years ago when the nation’s polytechnics were converted into universities under the Tories. I could go back further and cite the long overdue transformation of our secondary schools into comprehensives in the 1970s, and the subsequent downgrading of vocational education in the age of ‘they shall all have prizes’ as being where we really went wrong.

The change in secondary schools has caused long term damage to our nations’s ability to adapt to and to weather the storms of a volatile world economy. This change was mishandled back in the 1970s, I would argue, by the educational establishment, whom politicians of all colours had trusted at the time to make it happen, together with the Thatcher revolution a decade later, fuelled largely by North Sea Oil revenues, which speeded the collapse of our industrial and manufacturing base.

If Mr Williamson is allowed to practise what he is now preaching and needs a blueprint of how and where to start, there’s already one gathering dust in the Department of Education and Science – namely the 2004 Tomlinson Report on 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, which was placed there by the Blair government.

If the Lib Dems are serious about making a comeback, they have got to tackle subjects, such as the failure of our current education/training system, seriously. In addition, many employers and businesses have got to put real money into proper apprenticeships of the German variety, and not just take tax payers’ money to provide ‘modern apprenticeships’, as happened in many cases under both Labour and Tories, which, the cynic might say, enabled them to get work done on the cheap.

As far as government assistance to further study is concerned, I can see a strong case for offering bursaries in people-centred areas such as medicine, social care and teaching; but with the understanding that those receiving financial assistance should agree to work in this country for an agreed period of time before seeking opportunities elsewhere. Failure to do that would require them to repay the money they have received. Businesses and enterprises should also be prepared to invest in their potential employees by funding similar bursaries for engineers etc. In fairness, some, like Siemens and Rolls Royce, to name just a couple of firms, already do. For all other courses, I see no problem in students taking out loans, most of which will probably not be paid back in full, or at all, later in life.

Some will probably argue that such a ‘dirigiste’ approach goes against the principles of liberalism. They may have a point; but are they serious about getting to a position where they can actually have an influence on how we move forward?

So, hurry up, folks, otherwise the Tories and Labour might steal your clothes.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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  • Barry Lofty 14th Jul '20 - 2:47pm

    As someone who escaped my secondary modern school in nineteen hundred and frozen to death as did my wife, we vowed to try and give our children the chance of a better education, they did us proud with two going to university and one becoming a midwife due mainly to my wife’s endeavours and also five grandchildren also attending universities, so far! Having said that, I am also aware that this is not the only way to get the skills to survive in the modern world technical colleges, apprenticeships and plain hard work can help you to achieve a decent lifestyle and contribute to our economy, or you could become a hedge fund manager and move to the Cayman Isle.?

  • Innocent Bystander 14th Jul '20 - 10:38pm

    I understand, and applaud, the motive but my own view is that the obsession with “skills” is misplaced. Skills follow demand and people are very observant, adaptable and fast moving and will quickly respond if high paying vacancies emerge.
    Doctors (and barristers) are a special case as we allow a closed shop in those trades so those roles, which plenty could be trained to do, but aren’t, attract impressive salaries.
    Where there are no artificial barriers to entry it is just the salary that determines the numbers. Double nurses’ salary and hospitals would be overrun with them.
    The real crisis we have, is not a skill shortage but a shortage of opportunities to exploit those skills and to turn them into what it is that we really lack which is best described as “know-how” – something quite different.
    We could take a few dozen bright youngsters and run them through automotive engineering college then put them into a big room. They would not turn into Porsche. Porsche has a corporate reservoir of knowledge, not just naked skills. Every item they design is built on years of empirical data not just academic equations.
    It broke my heart to watch our engineering industry wither away because once that decades long and diffuse collection of know-how has dispersed, it can not be called back by education or training.

  • John Marriott 15th Jul '20 - 9:48am

    @Innocent Bystander
    The argument you used in your first paragraph was more or less the one used some thirty years ago to justify dismantling vocational education provision in secondary schools in favour of a more academic approach. Nobody is saying that numeracy, literacy or even an appreciation of the finer things in life aren’t important; but, as happened with the grammar school ethos when schools went comprehensive, the baby was largely thrown out with the bath water. What we ended up with was not a levelling up: but a levelling down and, with it, the abandonment of skills that in many ways built our country, which, the defenders of ‘Progressive Education’ assured us, were no longer required in the brave new world of floppy disks, ‘personal computers’ and pupil centred learning that was evolving before our eyes. Why get your hands dirty when there were much more pleasant things to be doing? “What are floppy disks?” I hear some say.

    Your mentioning of Porsche as an example draws me towards a comparison with how our Teutonic neighbours have been doing things for a very long time. Didn’t Lloyd George back in the early 1900s study how Wilhelmine Germany organised its ground breaking social security system?

    In fact, by the time of WW1 both Germany and the USA had overhauled the UK in terms of industrial production alone, in the case of the former by product quality and the latter by dint of natural resources and scale. Interestingly, after WW2 West Germany had repeated this feat by 1951, thanks largely to the Marshall Plan and having started with new factories and a workforce organised by, of all people, British Trade Unionists, in the spirit of ‘Mitbestimmung’ with employers to create the Social Market Economy many of us admire. Its success was partly based on the massive influx of ready trained skilled refugees from East Germany, which, after the Berlin Wall largely stopped that, was augmented by the arrival of the ‘guest workers’, both trained and untrained, from the 1960s onwards not just from Mediterranean countries but also nearer to home (remember ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’?), which continued up to the turn of the 21st Century.

  • I am loathe to enter the educational argument but my take on grammar schools has been shaped by my own experiences with the 11 plus and the superior feeling it gives to the selected few at no particular benefit to society at large and the favouritism and privilege given to certain families by their status in the community by heads and teachers, believe me I witnessed this with our own family but they did ok, see above. I personally hate the selective system.

  • John Marriott 15th Jul '20 - 12:00pm

    @Barry Lofty
    Me too. I live on a ‘comprehensive island’ in the middle of a selective sea here in Greater Lincoln. Mind you, it’s comprehensive in name only after the County Council a number of years ago allowed one of the eight excellent comprehensives to cherry pick the best students, thus turning it into a de facto grammar school.

    What some parents do here is to select a local ‘comprehensive’ as their first choice and then enter their off spring for the 11plus (available to all students in Lincolnshire). If they pass they are then entitled to a place at one of the County’s grammar schools, which can involve a round trip of over 40 miles per day. Now, the logic should surely be that, if you believe in selection then, if your child fails, they should then attend one of the many so called ‘County Secondary Schools’ (now mostly called ‘Academies’ but really Secondary Moderns). Of course they don’t! They get their first choice, namely a local all ability comprehensive school. Trump would probably say the parents were being smart. The generous might say they were hedging their bets or playing the system. Either way, I would say they are being hypocrites.

  • Students need to and be encouraged to consider far earlier how they’re going to make a living in a fast changing society. It’s okay going to university if you’ve a game plan for afterwards. It’s irresponsible to just play it be the ear hoping something will turn up. Careers advice needs to take a step up and be responsible for its results.

  • Yes John, my family home county was Buckinghamshire which still pursues the 11 plus system which I suppose will continue while the Tories dominate all political platforms in the county. My grandchildren have been educated in Berks, Yorkshire and Surrey and so escaped some of the problems with the 11 plus system but as in life not everything was perfect there either?

  • Students need to and be encouraged to consider far earlier how they’re going to make a living in a fast changing society.
    Good luck with that one.
    I totally ignored the career advice I received in 1977~79 and studied computing at Uni.
    I left Uni. in 1983 and by 1989 I was doing a job that didn’t exist when I left Uni.
    The laugh I had in 1985 was meeting up with the career’s advisor at a school reunion, the advisor had totally forgotten what they had said to me and congratulated me on chosing a career in IT.

    Whilst I’ve let much of the content of my degree behind, the skills I developed formed the foundation of the skillset I use to this day, even though the work I do today would have been “over the horizon” even to those working “over the horizon” (in the land of pixies) back then.

  • Yes, I still remember taking the eleven plus exam at Gomersal Church of England Primary School….. and still one particular question…. how long would it take to fill up a bath with water with the plug out if ……. Of such stuff was the future of ‘our great nation’ to be secured…….. and the life prospects settled for that particular generation.

    In the real world the percentage of how many ‘passed’ was a gender/post code lottery depending on the capacity and gender requirements of the local grammar schools. It was exacerbated in the mid fifties if a particular year cohort was bigger in number (e.g. those born in 1946 – for obvious reasons when the men came home)….. and also by the amount of coaching some parents could do by obtaining old exam papers.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Jul '20 - 3:01pm

    The grammar school system was supposed to enable working class pupils to become part of an intellectual elite, it largely failed to do this but it was successful at giving lower middle class pupils an education previously reserved for the upper middle class and upper class, enabling them to go to University if they were among the circa 2% who qualified at that time. For me, this meant I was the first to attend university in my family because I had academic intelligence.
    There were a lot of engineers at my University with tales to tell about people assuming they were getting their hands dirty with engine oil rather than studying a science. I myself did a social science degree and that was also looked down on at the time.
    We have two problems with education in this country IMHO and they are the kind of snobbery I’ve outlined and the assumption that academic intelligence is the only one that matters. Our nation has been saved in wartime by at least two academic failures, Churchill and the Duke of Wellington. We have realised because of the pandemic that people who care physically for the vulnerable in care homes are of vital importance, as are hairdressers. Our snobbery has been exposed. There is also snobbery about different universities.
    Let’s think about how we can best educate people in different ways rather than trying to make everyone academic. I think the new universities have succeeded in providing non academic training to pupils who want jobs which need skills that aren’t academic, but creative. My granddaughter is studying film making but mostly hasn’t had to write essays about film making but has been expected to make films. Communication skills are vital in this new age, but don’t necessarily come with academic intelligence.
    In the new world we will need people to change jobs several times in their lifetime so training will have to be much cheaper than a university course. How can someone who already owes thousands of pounds change career under present circumstances?
    We need answers to these problems rather than going back to the Tories’ Victorian ideas.

  • The fundamental problem is that too many people emerge from our education system with little or nothing in the way of skills or knowledge that would interest an employers. They are therefore destined for a life in the low pay sector, unless they can backtrack in some way. The interests of the economy and the individual overlap in this respect.
    We need to do away with closed shops that require people to spend three years gaining a qualification that is not really required to do the job (although I think Innocent Bystanders examples of doctors and barristers were not entirely appropriate).
    We need to discourage young people from doing courses that lead nowhere in particular. Did you know that each year more UK students gain a degree in Forensic Science than there are actual forensic scientists (in total, the whole lot) in all of Europe ?
    And that’s before we start talking about “meja studies” etc.
    The problem is that in the past it was largely, though obviously not exclusively, children from well off homes who went to university. Now that we have a far more socially diverse student population we congratulate ourselves on our progressive values. We then get irate when we realise that employers are more impressed by a degree in PPE from Oxbridge than one in Communications from the University of Somewhere.
    So we can cut back on degree courses and be accused of encouraging elitism, or let kids go on piling up debt doing courses that benefit neither them or the economy. It’s not a great choice.
    Or I suppose we could do a Harvard and fiddle the entry criteria – but lets not go there !

  • @Sue Sutherland.
    I broadly agree with your comments, although removing the “snobbery” (is that actually the right term ?” over different universities is easier said than done ? Has any other country succeeded ? I imagine the French still look up to the Sorbonne ? Stanford and Yale graduates still have an advantage in the States ?
    While you are right that care home workers and hairdressers matter, in that they are a fundamental part of the communities that we live in and our lives would be much the poorer without them, the harsh fact is that the rewards go to that relatively small group of people who can actually drive GDP growth, which means people in high tech jobs, finance, some branches of engineering. And before someone else suggests it, we could tax them all and give the money to care home workers but then they would just get on the next plane to Silicon Valley.
    Incidentally, I have a Social Science degree as well, which qualified me for very little apart from lecturing to the next generation of social science students. I wish I’d wised up when I was at school and focused on the STEM subjects, but such is life…..

  • John Marriott 15th Jul '20 - 5:43pm

    Chris Cory makes some salient points and is honest enough to own up to having a degree that doesn’t offer many opportunities.

    I am not against study for study’s sake, although such self indulgence should not be financed by the tax payer. It was indeed the case a generation or two ago; but that was when far less school leavers went to university. As Sue Sutherland says, going to university, or, as they say today “going to uni” was supposed to open up endless career possibilities to the individual. The mere fact that someone had got a degree was often sufficient for prospective employers. Is that still true today?

    What my article was about was to redress the balance of esteem and to acknowledge that skill can take many forms. The person who services my boiler, for example, is every bit as worthy of esteem and as valuable to our society as someone with a degree doing research on a vaccine against COVID-19, or any other highly skilled profession you might wish to name. I am reminded of the words of JFK for some reason “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. If we need them, we need to produce more of them at home.

  • Peter Chambers 15th Jul '20 - 7:47pm

    Can we distinguish between education and training, at least?
    One trains you in some skills, the other prepares you for a life of learning.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Jul '20 - 7:51pm

    @Chris Cory. The PM of New Zealand who is thought by many to have dealt with the pandemic in the best way of all nations has a degree in communication. As for “mejia studies” that you mention, often called Mickey Mouse degrees by the right wing press – in this day of media manipulation of public opinion by fake news, perhaps we would all benefit from this kind of course?

  • John Marriott 16th Jul '20 - 7:53am

    @Sue Sutherland
    Don’t forget ‘Media Technology’. My elder son got a 2:1 in it at Salford University some twenty years ago and stepped straight into a job at the BBC, for whom, after a brief sabbatical in the ‘private sector’, he is still working. Horses for courses?

    As I said earlier, study what you want. Only don’t necessarily expect the tax payer to pick up the tab!

  • A good article and comments, reflecting much disquiet (which I share) about the way post-18 education works.

    A great strength of the academic stream – both in my day and in its vastly expanded current version – is that it has a clear structure that was and is well understood by all involved – students, parents, teachers, and employers. Importantly, that means that everyone knows what they must achieve – including students. That was critically important to me when, aged about 15, I realised I needed to get my head down or I wouldn’t get to the university I wanted.

    Conversely, the non-academic alternative has no such clarity of structure. In fact, it’s not obvious there is any structure at all; few students have any clear idea of what they must do to get where they want and, absent a good structure, their family, friends, and potential employers can’t really help much.

    Lacking any alternative post-18 model, successive governments have done two things. Firstly, they have episodically thrown money at ‘apprenticeships’ of highly dubious worth embedded in bureaucracy of mind-numbing complexity hoping something useful would stick. Secondly, they have stretched and stretched the university model beyond breaking point (assuming any vaguely traditional definition of ‘university’) and also way beyond affordability. Hence student loans (which dump the cost on future generations).

    Yet, that still leaves ~50% without a clear target for their school studies and a further ~25% (?) who go to university but would probably be better suited by an alternative.

    So, for me the *BIG* thing that’s missing is a vocationally orientated alternative to university with a simple and coherent structure that would quickly become familiar to all involved – students, parents, teachers, and employers. That would involve a mix of study and work experience leading to a nationally recognised (and hence portable) qualification – in short, proper apprenticeships.

    For some it might lead to university later while for others it might come after university but for most it would be a stand-alone alternative leading to a nationally recognised (and hence portable) qualification.

  • The weird thing is that there is an existing but neglected UK model for precisely the sort of clearly structured and well understood vocational qualification I advocated in my first comment. It is simple, elegant, and proven.

    It is how accountants and some other professions organise training. For example, a school friend decided to become a chartered accountant so, instead of going to university, he got a job as a trainee with a small local firm that gave him a modest salary plus a study package comprising his course fees and study leave. IIRC the fastest route to qualification would have been to take four exams a year for three years but he had trouble passing his finals so had to do resits and took rather longer. I assume (but never asked) that he had to pay the resit fees himself. Had he failed his finals, he would still have been highly employable, albeit at a lower salary, as a ‘part qualified’. In the event, he passed and went on to a very successful career.

    It’s a competitive market. He could have chosen another accounting qualification; several exist, each with a different emphasis but large areas of overlap – certified, cost & management or public sector – plus there are lower level qualifications which can lead to the higher ones where ambition and ability combine.

    This is a model that could easily be adapted to work for the traditional (and newer) trades. I envisage that trade associations would set the syllabus and examine, that independent tutors would teach, and that employers would pay course fees in the first instance but be reimbursed by government – but only when the trainee has passed a complete stage.

    This would incentivise employers to give effective support without too much financial risk while government would pay only for results. Some trainees would drop out part way, finishing as part qualified, but that is not a problem. In my experience, skills acquired in one job have a way of proving immensely useful in very different roles years later.

    The really big win would, of course, be that school students of all abilities would have clear targets and if family issues, ill health, or anything meant their head wasn’t in the right place at the right time, they could come back later and pick up.

  • Phil Beesley 16th Jul '20 - 4:28pm

    I think it would be better if young people made up their own minds.

  • John Marriott 16th Jul '20 - 5:47pm

    Now you’re talking! If accountants can do it, why not a few other ‘professions’? It’s all about credibility. Where Germany scored was that employers saw it almost as their duty actually to train their apprentices and offer qualifications (it used to be called the ‘Meisterbrief’ and really opened up a world of opportunities to those who acquired it) that really meant something. Can an ‘ology’ really compete with that?

  • “If accountants can do it, why not a few other ‘professions’?”

    Why not indeed! Commentators, royal commissions and the like going back to Cobden in 1835 have deplored the lack of proper education and training outside the traditional professions and noted it’s where we are losing to rivals.

    Clearly, there are deep cultural issues blocking progress.

    ALL parties seem more interested in scratching their own itches than in providing good and effective governance so, despite overwhelming public support (>90%) for a proper apprenticeship option, NO party has made it their own.

    There are also strong institutional barriers. I don’t know how the accountants etc. got started but clearly, once established, their training system was well supported. I think it worked for them because (at least in pre-digital times) there was a lot of low-grade paperwork to be done so a low salary in return for training suited both sides.

    Conversely, that doesn’t work for many (probably all) trade skills. E.g. we once had some minor alterations done by a really good joiner and jack of all trades, then nearing retirement. When I asked, he told me he had never had, and could never have afforded, an apprentice. He explained that for the first six months or more they would be a complete deadweight, requiring near 1 on 1 supervision plus, once qualified they would leave.

    In other words, he knew, as Adam Smith pointed out, but neoliberals apparently don’t know, that there is a pervasive market failure in education and training. Moreover, neoliberals’ ideological devotion to competition as the right hand of the market-god means firms are so pressured, they can’t afford to invest in training.

    The way round that market failure is to create a symbiotic system of trade associations, tutoring companies, employers, and students as outlined above and keep it going with subsidies tied to successful outcomes, also as above. But that won’t spring into existence by itself; it requires institution-building legislation and some ongoing funding by government – which gets us back to the cultural blindness problem.

    And then there is the Treasury that sees only costs, never value. That’s a *BIG* problem and needs to change.

  • Developing a coherent apprenticeship system as an alternative to university has an important corollary for schools.

    At present, it’s a case of either get into a grammar school (or equivalent) or FAIL. That is totally unacceptable which is why it generates so much political heat.

    Governments have ‘solved’ this problem in two ways. Firstly, by making many schools nominally comprehensive to fudge the issue and secondly, by vastly expanding universities and so necessarily dumbing down A-levels – while defending them as the ‘gold standard’.

    Apprenticeships would necessarily cater for a big ability range; short order cooking can be a good job but isn’t academically demanding whereas a decent heating engineer is, IMO, at least equivalent to a first degree, possibly more.

    That opens the door for multiple streams – on a single site or over many schools. And parents could then simply choose (with no entry exam needed) which school/syllabus they wanted for their child (with primary teachers advising). There would have to be reasonable sanctions – a pupil who couldn’t/didn’t keep up would be moved to a less demanding stream.

    Circa 1990 C4 (?) made a programme on this. In the first part they asked the parents of a class of 10-year olds from a working-class part of East London about their aspirations. Most were very unhappy because they knew the chances of grammar school were slight. Then they took the parents to the Netherlands to see the choices they would have there.

    As I recall, Dutch parents could choose a course for their kids (with no 11+ equivalent) knowing that it would lead to a good apprenticeship if all exams were passed. If a child flunked a year (quite common because of illness, family breakup etc.) they could repeat it once; after that it was demotion to a less demanding alternative. (Dutch friends tell me their system has changed since for the worse!)

    On the bus back the parents were asking, “Why can’t we have a system like that?” and “Our Davy isn’t really good with book-learning, but he’s great with his hands. His grandfather was a plumber and that would really suit him too”.

    In short, they would have made sensible decisions given the chance.

  • John Marriott 18th Jul '20 - 12:01pm

    You know, Gordon, if I had known you were around and who you actually were, I reckon that I would have asked you to write the article for me! And, no, I’m not being sarcastic!

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