“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

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