‘…we’ve long been technical education snobs in this country,’ said Education secretary Damian Hinds in a speech at Battersea Power Station today. He’s right. And he’s also right when he says technical qualifications are too often regarded as being ‘something for other people’s children’.
This isn’t new. The prejudice against technical and vocational is entrenched and goes back decades. When tripartite education was introduced after the war, the second level. ‘technical’, was regarded as second-best after the first level: ‘grammar’. The third level, ‘modern’, was for eleven-year-olds destined to leave school at 15 with no qualifications.
Technical schools never really took off. The secondary system divided into two: grammar and modern. This divisive system was abandoned in most parts of the country in the 60s and 70s but lingers in some areas.
It’s ironic that the same education secretary who despairs at the prejudice against technical education is the same one who is encouraging selective, academic schools to expand.
This double-think will do little to raise the prestige of technical education. Lingering English snobbery together with education reforms since 2010 will see to that.
We have a schools minister, Nick Gibb, who is openly scornful of ‘skills’.
We have a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ held up as a gold standard. Nothing wrong with knowledge – it’s essential. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. Too often, ‘knowledge rich’ sidelines skills, inquiry and experience. This is especially true when advocated by Nick Gibb.
We have schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) who use ‘unashamedly academic’ as a selling point – an internet search for these two words will reveal just how many.
We have an accountability system which rewards schools for academic success. And EBacc has caused entries for such subjects as Design and Technology to fall.
We have ministers constantly praising academies and free schools for the number of pupils they send to Oxbridge.
The message is clear – academic is superior to technical.
Hinds is right that it shouldn’t be that way. But it will need more than ministerial endorsement to shift ingrained attitudes towards technical, the disdain towards those who work with their hands rather than their minds.
And it’s not just the responsibility of the education system. Employers need to train people not rely on importing ready-skilled migrants. Apprenticeship needs to become a protected description: high-quality training towards a recognised qualification. An updated version of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative needs to be rolled out nationally.
And the exam system in England needs to rely less on academic exams and more towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes comprising a wide range of academic, technical, vocational and practical exams together with work experience, taking part in such activities as DofE Award, scouting and charity work.
This would be a much richer experience for our young people than concentrating only on tests.