What Vince Cable said about teachers – and, more importantly, what he meant

vince cable“Teachers know absolutely nothing about the world of work.” That’s what Vince said if you believe today’s newspaper headlines. And they’re right, he did use those words. But what the newspapers are choosing to ignore is what he meant by them.

Here’s the full quote, from a question-and-answer session about how best to improve the quality of careers advice:

“There has been an argument in Government about how to get the right careers advice in schools and successive governments have frankly messed this up. But the underlying problem is of course that most teachers, particularly in the secondary sector, are graduates. They know how universities work, they know what you have to do to get an A-level, they know about UCAS forms – but they know absolutely nothing about the world of work.”

At that point, Vince’s audience of 600 representatives from the manufacturing industry laughed and clapped. Vince quickly realised how his remarks could have been (mis-)interpreted, commenting “I’ve only one joke today and it was unintentional.” You can heard the exchange below:

So what was Vince saying?

First, that teachers are very good at the job they do – that’s clear from his point about their expertise in schools.

Secondly, there is more that needs to be done to ensure that teenagers get the best possible advice about routes into work just as they do about routes into further study – and that this doesn’t always happen currently. Hence Nick Clegg’s announcement last week of a UCAS-style “one stop shop” for careers advice.

So yes, Vince’s comments were clumsy. They generalise about teachers and doubtless ignore a lot of schools’ excellent efforts to connect properly with local employers. But they were off-the-cuff comments about improving careers advice – not, as is being presented by some, an insult against teachers’ professionalism.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Is there not some hypocrisy here when the government axed the previous careers advice service (connexions)

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Mar '14 - 10:12am

    If significant numbers of teenagers are leaving school with standards of numeracy and literacy which, in today’s climate of relative few jobs for the unskilled, make them basically unemployable (if this was not the case then we would not see the chorus of complaints from prospective employers about this problem and their perceived need to provide remedial education – not their job at all), – careers advice becomes a bit irrelevant – at least without first establishing that the teenager has adequate levels numeracy and literacy and understands the principle of commitment and the need to turn up for work on time – oh and to leave the social networking device(s) at home when they go to work.

  • @Rebecca Taylor – That is similar to the experiences of teachers I know.

    I also tend to think that local authority-run schools tend to have quite a narrow outlook on careers. Another reason why I have no problem letting private sector providers take over schools.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Mar '14 - 11:10am

    Perhaps there is an argument for a requirement that teachers – maybe just secondary school teachers – spend some time working in some other field apart from education before starting their teaching careers.

  • @Nonconformistradical

    “Perhaps there is an argument for a requirement that teachers – maybe just secondary school teachers – spend some time working in some other field apart from education before starting their teaching careers.”


    Do you want heart surgeons to go and spend some time working in another job before becoming heart surgeons despite the fact that the other job will help in no way their ability to perform heart surgery and would, therefore, be a waste of time? If you’re arguing that teachers aren’t the best people to give careers advice then I would agree with you. That’s why they’re called teachers – they are a profession dedicated to teaching. If schools are to give careers advice then surely the right thing to do is employ professional careers advisers in the schools with a knowledge of what is required and expected from a range of different careers, but I don’t actually have any experience of what schools do these days with regards to careers advice but I also get the impression that you don’t know either.

    Does anybody that does know anything about careers advice in schools want to contribute to this debate?

  • Julian Critchley 6th Mar '14 - 1:06pm

    There are few less edifying sights than politicians who haven’t been inside a school since they were 18, pronouncing on the problems of schools as they see it. As someone who worked in the private sector as an accountant, and then the public sector as a civil servant, for 15 years prior to career-changing to be a teacher, I found Cable’s comments deeply offensive. As would many of my colleagues who are also career-changers.

    More to the point, even those who did not work outside teaching cannot be classified as knowing nothing about the world of work. I recognise that non-teachers really struggle with this (I did, before my career move), but schools ARE places of work. Places where the best part of a million people work, nationally. They have working hours, terms and conditions, targets, objectives, teams, hierarchies, professionals, budgets, meetings, support staff, and all the other panoply of guff which you’ll find in nearly every workplace. To say that people who go to work every day know absolutely nothing about the world of work is a clear indication that the person saying that does not class teaching as “work”. It’s an attitude which all teachers have come across time and time again. Somehow, working with young people as a teacher is seen as sub-standard, a bit of a doss, not a real job.

    So what Cable did here was reveal his inner prejudice. It’s in-keeping with most politicians, and most media pundits. All of them are utterly convinced that their experience of not teaching means that they are automatically better qualified to say what should happen in schools than someone who is actually experienced in teaching, because teachers are sub-standard. This is the basis of Gove’s approach, which the LibDems have happily gone along with for four years now. You can dress it up however you like, but all teachers recognised exactly what Cable was saying, because they’ve grown wearily used to be treated with such contempt by politicians from all parties.

    @Steve – thank you for a reasonable and rational comment. No place for such things in the education “debate”, sadly.

  • Alexander Matthews 6th Mar '14 - 1:19pm

    Well, as a young graduate, I have very little knowledge of careers advice beyond what I arrived when I was in school (about 7 years ago, now).

    Basically, it came from teachers and connexions.

    Connexions’ advisers seem very nice and well-intentioned, but never really provided any information of any real substance. This is not to demean them, like I said, they were extremely polite and clearly wished to help, I just, personally, did not find the limited information they had to offer very helpful.

    Teachers seemed to be under a lot of pressure from the ‘heads of the school’, government policy at the time and to a much lesser extent their own bias to get as many students into university as possible. As such, much of their advice for anyone with the academic potential to get into university was made with a presumption that you would be going to university because you could. There was never even a consideration of alternative paths ahead. Now, for me this was not a problem because I wanted to be a barrister, so a university based education was almost a given, but even those wishing to pursue a career as a solicitor do not have to go to university to achieve that goal. However, very few, if any, would know that when they were still in school and it never seemed to cross anyone’s mind to tell them of it.

    I am not sure if Vince is right on the reasoning, but highlighting that schools may be overly focused on university is not an unfair comment.

  • Julian Critchley 6th Mar '14 - 1:32pm


    You’ve hit the nail on the head a bit with that. The last 4 years has seen a tremendous narrowing of the Curriculum with an overarching focus on traditional “academic” subjects, and this has been at the expense of vocational provision. It’s been explicit too, and intentional. Gove only accepts one model of “success”, which is a raft of traditional academic GCSEs. Schools have got that message, whipped as they are by OFSTED, and are acting on it.

    As a teacher, if I were to suggest to a student that they’d do better looking at vocational courses, rather than, say, History, then I’d hit two problems : (1) there may not be any vocational courses available to them any more, since we’ve decimated our vocational provision since the introduction of the Ebacc, and (2) I would be hammered by school “leadership” for expressing “low expectations” of the child for daring to suggest that they might benefit from a less academic course. That is now the reality for teachers in all schools.

    The second point – and it’s worth mentioning again – is that “teachers” is a meaningless term when it comes to careers advice. A history teacher is employed to teach history. A maths teacher is employed to teach maths. They don’t get to decide what’s on the examination syllabus, they don’t get to decide what curriculum can be offered to the students in their schools in terms of vocational/traditional subjects, and they don’t get to provide guidance to students on what careers to pursue. None of those things are done by teachers. The Government and exam board decide the first, the head and governors decide the second under pressure from the government, and the careers service provide the third.

    So just to go back to Vince, he essentially both dismissed teaching as a real job, and then blamed teachers for not doing something which they are not paid or expected to do. Good day at the office for Vince.

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Mar '14 - 2:37pm

    In some parallel universe at this moment, a Labour spokesman has just said that teachers know nothing about the world of work and Stephen Tall has written an article condemning them for crass ignorance and being offensive to teachers. This article is a classic case of defending the indefensible through tribal loyalty.

    Since teachers tend to work (as, er, teachers), it would be rather surprising if they knew nothing of the world of work. An awful lot of teachers would also have worked in other sectors before they were teachers – perhaps in a first career, like Julian, or to help support themselves while at university. Perhaps graduates who mix in the same social circles as Vince Cable don’t have to do that, but a great many do.

  • I’m a teacher. My first job after leaving university was for a Lib Dem MP. In my time I’ve also worked in a motor way service station, on building sites and in the charitable sector. My current colleagues know more about the “world of work” than my colleagues in parliament did both from the ‘work’ that we do and from our other life experiences.

    Since when was Stephen Tall the arbiter of what people should or should be allowed to be insulted by? Do you mind if I make my own mind up Stephen? I find it mildly offensive but will get over it. As a teacher one becomes quite accustomed to people with ill informed views claiming to know everything that is apparently wrong with education.

    Let me explain my offense. I find it offensive that government ministers who know ‘notthing of the world of teaching’ find the need to pontificate about teachers whether they be Lib Dem, Tory or Labour. I find it offensive that this government cuts careers advice funding and then seeks to lay the blame for failings in the system at the door of teachers. I find it offensive that this government pushes the agenda of the encouraging the aspiration to go to university, pushes the need to focus on academic subjects and puts teachers under ever greater pressure to deliver results (performance related pay) and then bemoans the fact that this is all that teachers seem to be good for. I find it quite offensive that parents, right wing commentators and anyone else who wants to have a pop at teachers now have another weapon in their arsenal thanks to news stories like this. Finally I find it quite offensive to be tarred with the same brush.

    Its all well and good saying he’s not insulting teacher’s profesionalism but he’s still adding fuel to a fire that already burns. He’s hardly providing ammunition for a a flurry of reports about how professional teachers are.

    A couple of weeks ago Joe Otten wrote a piece on this website suggesting that the demonisation of public sector workers was just outrage generated by the Labour Party and Unions and that coalition ministers didn’t really demonise public sector workers; the subtext of which was that public sector workers have thin skins or their own political agendas. I’m not a member of the Labour party and I’m a member of a (generally)non-striking teaching union and let me tell you that I do feel slightly demonised. Perhaps not by this comment alone by the drip feed of such comments.

  • Julian Critchley – I almost always agree with everything you write but on this occasion I’m with Stephen Tall’s take on it and think you have misinterpreted Vince’s admittedly clumsy wording. When I first read it through I just assumed he meant ‘work’ as in non-graduate work outside/beyond school which is consistent with the context of what school-leavers do next. The alternative interpretation – that he was slandering teachers as if what they do somehow isn’t work – makes no sense whatsoever.

    The poor quality audio it back ups my interpretation. After the laughter dies away he makes a joke then goes on to say (as far as I can make out); “They [teachers] don’t know how to connect people to apprenticeships or traineeship which we are now doing … The system has been highly defective … We are now putting in place … statutory guidance to schools about how they should put in place proper careers advice linked to the world of work…”

    While I – sort of – agree with Vince about this, I don’t think that better ‘careers advice’ is where it’s at – not that I’m opposed to it.

    What strike me is that everyone understands how university entrance works. Structurally the system has been essentially stable for decades so everyone is on the same page as it were – teachers, schools etc. Even parents who themselves never went to university soon pick up what they need to know to help their children through the system so the pathway is clearly visible to all and the benefits of this must cascade down the school. I still remember thinking about chemistry in particular that I had to buckle down and learn it (despite a weak teacher) because I would need it for any of the university courses I was contemplating.

    But apprenticeships? No chance, and that’s not entirely down to Gove’s misdirection. I recently asked a plumber who has made a very good career out of his trade how he would advise a youngster wanting to follow him into it in the hope of emulating his success. “Beats me, I’ve no idea” he said. Yet he is just the sort of man who could/should be taking on as an apprentice a scrappy kid from down the road or a friend’s son that he might see potential in. Much of this could happen with little or no government or careers advice if the system was properly set up. But it’s not happening nearly enough. So for me this is the big omission in the system. Instead of the clearly visible path beyond school those wishing to go to university enjoy, those who DON’T want to go to university face a kind of foggy swamp. So what precisely are we asking 15 and 16 year old who are never likely to go university to do in school? Where is their internal motivation? What do their parents, friends, relations know about steering them in the right direction?

    So the need is for a structural equivalent to UCAS to improve the visibility of the vocational pathway.

  • The coalition cut funding for career advisors, now a senior government minister criticises teachers, however inadvertently, for not being good at it.

    This isn’t a problem with teachers, this is a policy problem and a sign something is deeply, deeply wrong in government where the first instinct is always to blame someone else for a problem of the government’s making.

  • @stephen tall
    You’ve written a blog post to outline why people are wrong to consider Vince’s comments are not an insult. I think they are.

  • *are an insult

  • Nice try Stephen, but as clumsy generalisations go it was too clumsy and the generalisation was unjustified. He has (even if inadvertently) caused offence and he should apologise.

  • Shirley Campbell 6th Mar '14 - 11:31pm

    Steve 6th Mar ’14 – 11:24am

    “Do you want heart surgeons to go and spend some time working in another job before becoming heart surgeons despite the fact that the other job will help in no way their ability to perform heart surgery and would, therefore, be a waste of time?”

    Steve, I think that you have hit the nail on the head. There is a trend these days to expect people to be all things to all people; no one person can be so.

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Mar '14 - 11:59pm

    GF – ‘ I recently asked a plumber who has made a very good career out of his trade how he would advise a youngster wanting to follow him into it in the hope of emulating his success.’“Beats me, I’ve no idea” he said. Yet he is just the sort of man who could/should be taking on as an apprentice a scrappy kid from down the road or a friend’s son that he might see potential in.’

    Probably because the route that plumber took barely exists now. In the past the classic way into the trades was clearly defined and well known – college course followed by time (years) in new build. It is simply not true to look back at a golden age when lots of young people rolled out of College and took out yellow-pages ads. That sort of work needs things like boxes of expensive tools, a van, advertising, an address book full of plasterers, scaffolders, solar panel fitters and so on. The classic route was to build these up on new build. As a result of various things, we have had almost zero new build for a very long time and this has clobbered the trades, plumbing in particular.

    Even if your plumber took the scrappy kid in (a wildly over-romantic idea) there is no promise that the actual work would be there. The best trade skills in the world are no use in an economy where there is no plumbing being done. And this is before we get to the small point that your plumber likely did not have to compete with 75% of Europe for work.

    There are huge issues here, but please let’s not pretend that things from the golden age that never was can be pickled in aspic. The real fun and games start if we ever have university style fees applied to vocational courses – far from fanciful.

  • What Stephen Tall wrote about Euroscepticism – and, more importantly, what he meant

    Stephen, you have ‘come out’ as Eurosceptic. Could you please explain which aspect of the EU are you uncomfortable with? It is bothering me a bit as we need to be united as the party of IN.

    Maybe you could research Euroscepticism within our party and write an article about it? It would be good to help others ‘come out’ too.

  • I agree with Julian Critchley. Vince’s remarks were clumsy and while he clearly didn’t mean what he came across as saying, there is this underlying issue of doing teachers down. As a school governor I am amazed by how hard teachers work and with what skill.

  • “But what the newspapers are choosing to ignore is what he meant by them.”

    That is not an attempt to outline why you think the comments have been mis-interpreted. That is a statement explicitly accusing other people of deliberately misleading others about what Cable meant. It implies that the newspapers already knew what Cable actually meant and that what Cable actually meant is what Stephen Tall says he meant, and, by logical extension, anyone that disagrees with what Stephen Tall thinks that Cable meant is also deliberately trying to mislead or has been misled.

  • @Michael It is correct that Connexions was axed, However before there was a Connexions service there was A Local Authority Careers Service integrated into the LEA. The Tory Government required it to be privatised
    Just for the record it is interesting and encouraging to see the apparent rediscovery of the apprenticeship. I recall the the 1980s Tory invention of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) which was an ill disguised cheap alternative to apprenticeships. I write as one who was an indentured apprentice who was lucky to have had an employer who enabled me to access Higher Education. When My dad signed my indentures it was normal for employers to employ apprentices the Government weren’t involved so it is amusing to observe the Tory (&some Libs) self-congratulating on the numbers of apprenticeships! I admit to being an old codger though..

  • Sorry I was referring to the “small state” right wingers becoming involved in apprenticeships.

  • Andrew Noblet 7th Mar '14 - 10:08am

    I helped teach careers in the seventies until it was removed from the Curriculum. Teachers worked closely with industry organising visits and work experience . The course I ran, Lifeskills, used speakers from local industry to explain to the young people about the world of work. I remember visits to banks, solicitors, British Rail Engineering (before it was closed), Radio Rentals. I had a secondment with Marks and Spencer. I had worked in several hotel kitchens and, I guess, most teachers have done other than academic work in order to live before and during their courses. There is a cultural divide but the problem lies with Parliamentarians and Civil Servants! Oh, I was a shop assistant in my father’s shop for quite a few years whilst at secondary school.

  • Little Jackie Paper – “Probably because the route that plumber took barely exists now.

    Exactly my point. So my plumber cannot advise current youngsters based on his own experience. But where on earth did you get the idea I was looking back to some golden age (or do I misunderstand you )? The UK establishment has had a blind spot for towards the importance of trade skills that extends back at least 150 years. Gove’s preoccupation with academic learning sits in a long and misguided tradition.

    As for the lack of new build – well, yes but that’s a wholly different problem. And there are other trades besides the building ones. My “scrappy kid” may be a somewhat romantic notion but this sort of thing actually happens but just not often enough. The tradesman I know best makes a point of recruiting and bringing on recruits with troubled backgrounds. A friend, in his day one of the worst pupils in a sink school in W Yorkshire, says his life was ‘saved’ by the fortunate happenstance of being apprenticed to a old communist “who knocked some sense into me” as he puts it. This sort of thing is the reality of community involvement which politicians like to invoke but which I suspect most have little idea of.

  • There’s some pretty unpleasant class prejudice in your comments about ‘scrappy kids’, GF. Are the trades only for the mischievous lower orders, higher education for nice, well behaved middle class kids? Everybody should know their place, and all that?

  • g – Any class prejudice exists only in your mind. Did you not bother to read that one such became a good friend? A very good friend I might add and one that I came to admire greatly for his many qualities. And your inference that this somehow means that trade is only for the “mischievous lower orders” is derived only from your own imagination.

  • Chris Holman 10th Mar '14 - 12:04pm

    In the 60’s my friend Bob was at teachers Training College. One of his fellow students was ex-Merchant Navy & Bob remarked how beneficial that was in relating to the children & quickly gaining their respect when on Teaching Practice.

    Vince is right in most cases and I agree with the suggestion that potential secondary school teacher [and most MPS] should be required to have worked elsewhere before becoming teachers or standing as an MP. The work experience should not be in the rarefied atmospheres of academia, the law, politics or accountancy.

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