“Specialise ! Let no tired bad idea evade your eyes !”*

Yet again we are hearing proposals for the establishment of specialist vocational colleges: we’ve heard this under a range of education ministers, of both parties and over several decades.  This sounds sensible: the UK has many skills shortages, and specialist institutions seem to work in other areas like medicine.  Why not establish a Voxbridge that will develop the excellence in technical skills that we need?  Well, because the idea is neither practicable nor sensible. The reasons are:

  • We do not need a few superb electricians/builders/social care/IT technicians. We need lots of them, good and competent, all over the country.  They have been provided in the past by several hundred further and technical education colleges – the ones who have suffered the deepest education cuts in the past decade. It’s not an elite issue.
  • No-one is quite sure what is meant by specialisation. Does it mean a college that does just one subject – (eg) electrical installation – and nothing else ? Wouldn’t that be impractical ?  Would it do that subject at all levels, from elementary to post-degree ?  Outside four or five major conurbations, the volumes would not be there to support such a college, unless we moved students from all over the region to halls of residence, which would be very expensive, impractical for adults who form the bulk of the workforce (and require grants and bursaries denied to all other students).  
  • Specialist colleges in the past proved more expensive than general colleges, and were kept alive by a funding fudge factor; despite that, some had to be rescued by merger with a larger neighbour.  How long will the Treasury smile on the extra expense ?
  • Is it proposed to establish an elite institution in every vocational area, from hairdressing to horticulture ?  Really ?  Will Scarborough send its apprentice hairdressers to Bradford ?
  • Existing FE colleges already have specialist departments. They may be general colleges, but not all have every vocational area, because (eg) catering, building or engineering require critical student numbers and expensive equipment.  Skills like motorcycle engineering, dental technology, carpet technology, musical instrument repair, are already specialised departments in general FE. 
  • Even beyond that, there is a sense in which within general FE colleges, the actual provision is specialised now. The plastering lecturer teaches nothing but plastering, the drama teacher just drama.  Some departments are very large, occupying separate buildings.  Why would a 400 FTE student specialist college be better than a 600 FTE department in a general college ?
  • There have been a number of similar initiatives, and all have failed.  University technical schools lie empty, Colleges of Vocational Excellence provide just a badge on the boardroom wall.  In any case, the students could only come from existing providers: what legal provision could shut down an existing autonomous college’s engineering or IT department, and insist on student transfer ?
  • Some specialist colleges exist, and some are excellent; I remember being very impressed by Leeds College of Building.  Broadly, however, the research I have seen shows no general correlation between the breadth of a college curriculum and student success. DfES researchers, Strategic Area Reviews and Ofsted have looked and found nothing.  Indeed, (eg) when I worked in this area, art departments in general FE colleges got better Ofsted grades than those in specialist art colleges.  We actually don’t know.  “Specialization is an under-researched area in the UK, and much of the material is too old to be of use” said a survey. I once read every inspection report in England’s colleges, and the very best were the tertiary colleges that met the widest range of local need.
  • Many FE colleges started as specialist colleges – of mining, textiles, engineering, construction and so forth.  They broadened their curriculum to stay solvent, spreading costs more widely, avoid the effect of recession on (eg) building enrolments, represent the changing technical world and to improve the student mix and learning environment.  As noted above, many colleges have merged simply to stay alive.
  • Careers services and adult advice centres have been hollowed out under this government.  How would students find their way to Voxbridge ?  And it may come as a surprise to policy makers that adults do not retrain to do their existing job better: they retrain to do a better job, or a different job.  The idea that adults with family responsibilities in the midst of a cost of living crisis will take on substantial loans in order to do their existing job better for no more money only has to be stated to be shown to be fanciful

In summary, then, specialism is an idea that has often been enthused over but rarely thought through.  Colonel Ghadaffy thought it was a great idea for Libyan secondary schools: on a visit to Libya, I spoke to an official who despaired that the only secondary school within fifty miles for his daughter, who wanted to be an engineer, was a languages school.  Its very definition is not clear, and it looks like turning out an expensive flop, if ever delivered: which it won’t be.  In my view, the debate reflects two general problems with UK education policy

  • Agnosticism – even boredom – about the effectiveness of local structures – whether, overall, one system is better than another.  There is an obsession with the performance of individual institutions (‘academies’, ‘beacon schools’, ‘failing schools’, ‘coasting colleges’ and all that) but little interest in the effectiveness of the service offered to local people as a whole.  How many local people get skills, qualifications, jobs ?  Who gets adults back into retraining ?  Who achieves best with the young cohort that don’t go to university ?  We don’t know what’s the best structure (though we have some pretty good clues and – plot spoiler – it isn’t bloody grammar schools), but even if we did, we could do nothing about it because no-one is in charge. Have you ever tried to explain our educational ‘system’ to a foreigner ?

  • The desire to bring research and evidence to support of prejudices rather than to illuminate the scene.  This applies particularly to commissioned research, but also to alleged lessons from overseas – what is known as ‘policy tourism’. The Tories’ Technical and Vocational Education initiative (TVEI) came from a visit by Lord Young to a few schools in Israel.  New Labour’s Individual Learning Accounts copied a bright idea in a small Canadian province. There was much excitement about a tough New York school that gets its kids into Harvard and Yale – but (it was discovered) only after kicking out volumes of weaker students.

Oh, and there’s a third problem.  Using the vocational education system for endless innovations, changes and reforms whilst the traditional academic sixth form remains essentially as it was in the 1950s. Which will continue for as long as MP’s kids go nowhere near the college system that provides for the majority of post 16 education in this country.

*apologies to Tom Lehrer

Looking back and forward

I haven’t been blogging much recently.  There are a number of reasons for this. One is the attraction of Twitter – putting one’s views in a short, easy format, and getting the immediate support of, oooh, six readers.  Another is the feeling that much of what needs to be said falls into John Cleese’s category of “Master’s Degree in the bleedin’ obvious”:

  • (Guess which week this was written !!)  Liz Truss isn’t up to it.  She is helping a disease that infected us from America and Australia – the idea that political success is made by seeking out enemies and demonising them, by splitting the country into mutually hostile factions and sects, rather than bringing people together and  improving life for the many.

  • The growth the UK economy needs will not be delivered by any of the measures advocated by the current government. What is needed is greater private sector investment, better public infrastructure, improved management and an emphasis on lifelong education and training.  We are getting none of them, and there is no evidence that tax cuts/free ports/cutting red-tape (whatever that means) will help in the slightest.

  • People in rubber dinghies in the Channel are not illegal immigrants. They become so only when a proper evaluation has been conducted.  As it is, 60% or so pass the government’s own assessment of their case.

  • We are an unequal society, and those of us wanting to see fewer children hungry or adults cold are not Venezuelan revolutionaries seeking the King’s head on a spike.  Hardly anyone wants absolute equality, but 99% of us would benefit from greater equality than we have at the moment.

  • Explaining where the money came from to build stately homes (something, actually, that has always fascinated me) is not “woke nonsense”. It’s our history.

  • Grammar schools don’t raise standards, and there is no need for any emphasis on more academic sixth forms (least of all, helped by private schools seeking to improve their reputation). If any, we need fewer.

You know all of that. If you didn’t, there are better people than me to explain them all. 

No doubt I’ll leap back in now and again, but I thought what I’ll do now is reflect on my own record on this blog. It’s been going for more than ten years, and some items have been brought forward from (can’t work out whether this sounds good, or bad) the last century.  I’m pretty happy with most of it.  In the modern cant, I’ve got the big calls right, and (preen, preen) most of the small ones.  I’ll happily defend everything I’ve written on education policy, economics (bloody Laffer curve, bloody balanced budgets), inequality, growth and productivity, history (I might do some more work on the misuse of WW2 in British politics), and so on.  Plain that Conservative governments have been, overall, bad for the country, and austerity particularly.  I didn’t expect Brexit to be quite the disaster it’s turned out to be, but that was because I couldn’t believe it would be quite so badly implemented: nevertheless, I voted remain, and become fiercer about this as time passes.  I saw through Corbyn.   I’ve regularly written on bogus quotations, and there are others rallying to that cause: not earth-shattering, but (as Orwell did say) political language matters.  I remain pro-Israel – a Zionist moron, as a Twitter correspondent described me – though the actions of the current leaders of that country can make it hard.

Where have I gone wrong ?  Looking back, there’s a 2014 item about the toppling of the pro-Russian Ukraine president that I thought was undemocratic, and would lead to trouble.  Not sure how that sits now: it reads a bit more like realpolitik rather than prescience. 

Further back in my life, I opposed joining the EEC in the 1974, talked at various meetings, wrote articles from what would today be called a Lexit perspective.  I still think I was right about not joining the Eurozone – saw it coming, explained why it was a mistake – but broadly, partnership with Europe has proved a good idea.  The idea that membership was ill advised because it would prevent a progressive British government introducing radical reforms was followed by ten years of Thatcher.  And look what’s happened now we’ve tried a different path.  I was a sceptic about the power of the internet, and pooh-poohed the idea that a substantial part of our purchases would be made on line: Amazon was making big losses, and wouldn’t last long.  That change in our habits came later than predicted, but it happened, and the owners made fortunes.  I thought budget airlines were a bad idea that would end in smoking crashes as companies cut maintenance costs: now I lament Ryanair no longer flying to Dinard.  Can’t remember last time I flew on a mainstream airline.  I couldn’t see the point of gay marriage until a friend had to buy back half his London flat when his partner died.  Going back a long way, in the 1970s I thought publishing school and college inspection reports was a dreadful idea: can’t remember why.

Of course, there’s a difference between value judgements and facts.  You can say Britain is more or less unequal than another country – that can be confirmed by data – but saying you’re in favour of, or against more equality is a matter of preference.  The boundary can be blurred (the idea that inequality improves economic growth is discredited) but it’s a view.  You can say you think people should keep more of their income rather than pay additional taxes, and that’s a respectable philosophical view.  What you can’t say is cutting taxes increases the government take, because it just doesn’t.  You can prefer ski holidays to hot holidays, but you can’t say there is more snow in summer.  That may be a silly example, but we have people who want to avoid vaccination because they feel they have the right to determine medical interventions (OK) but that doesn’t mean they are correct in asserting that Bill Gates is trying to insert computer chips in your blood.

The thing to look for is people who accept inconvenient facts.  You can say that Brexit is important for national autonomy.  What you can’t say is that Brexit will improve our economy or overseas trade.  Another sign of honesty is having unmatching views.  The curious thing is how many current political views are accepted in overlapping clusters.  People who deny the effectiveness of vaccines are likely to be pro-Brexit. People who want lower taxes will say grammar schools help raise standards.  People who want more nationalisation are pro-Palestinian. There is no connection between these pairs of views.  In some cases, cluster views are contradictory.  I suspect most “pro-life” Americans are in favour of the death penalty, which is odd.  These pairs seem evidence that political views are a signal of position, rather than a developed and evidenced stance.