Education Secretary Justine Greening wants a skills revolution. But schools minister Nick Gibb loathes skills. He won’t even let civil servants use the word in Department for Education correspondence, Laura Mcinerney, editor of Schools Week, told a Tory Conference fringe meeting.
In her Schools Week editorial*, she describes how Tory MPs asked why pupils weren’t taking vocational subjects, why arts, music and design & technology were being sidelined, why apprenticeships have a negative image.
The answer, she said, is Nick Gibb.
Gibb is passionate about transmitting knowledge. And that’s an important part of what schools do. It’s what Hector, the teacher in The History Boys, described as a precious parcel to be treasured and passed on.
Unfortunately, Gibb’s enthusiasm for knowledge blinds him to the merits of anything outside an academic core.
Gibb’s boss understands the importance of skills. For years, employers have been saying how they need school leavers with better work-related skills. And our economy, particularly post-Brexit, will require more people to acquire them.
Since 2010, Gibb’s view has been in the ascendant. School accountability measures reward schools who prioritise EBacc subjects and ‘facilitating’ A levels. Schools which send large numbers of pupils to university are publicly praised. This sends out a message that apprenticeships are second-tier qualifications for those not clever enough to enter higher education.
This view has been unwittingly reinforced by Robert Halfon, the new chair of the Education Select Committee, who says schools should lose part of their pupil premium if few of their pupils, especially disadvantaged ones, don’t take up apprenticeships. This idea implies apprenticeships are mainly a route for the disadvantaged.
It’s not just skills where Gibb and Greening part company. In 2010, Gibb said he’d rather have teachers with an Oxbridge degree and no qualified teacher status than teachers from ‘rubbish’ universities with a PGCE. Greening favours non-graduates being able to enter teacher via apprenticeships.
As Mcinerney points out, whatever your opinion about apprenticeships v university (or a non-graduate route into teaching), ‘It’s straightforwardly the fact that the left hand and the right hand are no longer talking in the education department’.
This raises the question about who is really in charge at the DfE. Is Greening just the figurehead while the education ship ploughs on with someone else at the helm?
If she is really serious about promoting skills Greening must change the content of school performance tables. She must change measures which encourage schools to concentrate solely on a core of academic subjects. She must remove anything which promotes the view that university is the only valuable route for school leavers.
As a top priority, Greening must ensure her second-in-command follows the course she plots and doesn’t undermine her vision by rubbishing skills as wishy-washy concepts pushed by ‘progressive’ teachers. If he won’t do so then perhaps the time has come for Gibb to go.
UPDATE 9 October 2017, 08.52. Schools Week reports how UK pupils are helping scientists find a vaccine for the human tapeworm. Professor Becky Parker, director of the Institute for Research in Schools, said, 'It is a fabulous opportunity for school students to carry out real research, working directly with scientists on a globally important project.' But this kind of hands-on project comes under the heading 'enquiry-based learning' which is derided by Nick Gibb.
*'All aboard the "Skills Revolution"! (Even you Mr Gibb)', Schools Week, 6 October 2017, not yet available online