By John Hully
Many news reports on youth unemployment feature a spokesperson from one of the large business or employer lobbying groups, to repeat the message that employers are loathe to take on a young person who might not be (in their view) fit for employment. Such a spokesperson may well repeat the allegation that our “education system” is not preparing school leavers for work. They may even go further, and suggest that schools or even individual teachers should take on the responsibility of going out to local workplaces and return to the classroom to teach what employers want.
This is another example of business transferring risk to the state sector, in this case the risk of training costs. It is also an example of the collapse in the security and quality of employment, where legislation for a “flexible workforce” is designed to permit employers to have the benefits of employees without any of the responsibilities.
This is not to say that there is no place for vocational education. Vocational education in the sense of teaching procedural knowledge should be more valued. New Labour attempted, laudably, to introduce more vocational education through the Secondary Diplomas which were abruptly and dismissively terminated by Michael Gove; and the B-Tec courses remain quite widely used. Vocational education has been a problem too many for governments for over half a century. It is seemingly forgotten that the postwar secondary school system had three components: there were supposed to be technical schools alongside grammars and secondary moderns. Similarly, what were polytechnics are now Universities, while further education seems to have become a detached system of cost-cutting and zero hours contracts. The loss of vocational education may also derive in part from the shape of the National Curriculum, severely aggravated by the imposition of school targets based on examination results together with the dishonest deal with pupils and parents that better exam grades equated to “better jobs”.
Vocational education is still education: it is not about meeting the immediate demands of business for trained employees. The Labour Party should be absolutely clear about this principle: education is not training.
Good business owners know their businesses and their employees well; and therefore know not only what skills and competencies their employees should have, but what development they need. It is the responsibility of employers to provide training for employees to their benefit and that of their own businesses. It is not the role of schools. The Labour Party should be pressing for the reconstruction of Training Boards, funded by business, to pool resources and requirements and to oversee workplace training. Allowing employers to refuse to employ school-leavers unless they are trained will not only aggravate an already dire level of youth unemployment, but increase the probability of a government being blackmailed into accepting that transfer of risk and funding such unsavoury measures as paying for young employees to work temporarily in individual private businesses.
Ironically, the disingenuous complaints from employers that school-leavers are unemployable are not new, but they come at a time now when trained teachers (certainly those teaching in English state schools) are acutely aware that learning and improving personal and social skills through group-work and other activities is absolutely necessary and is something which should be built into every lesson.
Education is not training. That is a principle.
It would be entirely impractical for an education system to train students for all possible employment they might enter on leaving school and throughout their lives: unless, of course, every job were identical to every other; or jobs required no, or minimal training. To treat education as equivalent to training is therefore to assume (or, worse, to desire) that employment be unskilled and contingent; as well as to assume (or again, desire) that education has no greater purpose than preparing people for jobs.
The “better job” purpose of education depends on an agreed definition of what is a “better job”; and this is too easily reduced to “better-rewarded”. This in turn assumes that the measure of a worth of a job, or its occupant, is money. It is not just reductive but antithetical to ideals of vocation or service. It also disagrees with Tawney’s principle that education is not about “social mobility”; not least because many people will not wish to “rise” in society. They may have more principled objectives. They may wish to derive more from their employment than money.
The blocker, again, is the sense of social status applied to different skills and occupations.
This is where Labour should engage with academics and key stakeholders; with educational specialists, examinations boards, and employers. At secondary and tertiary level, there must be opportunities for employers – or rather, industry sectors – to provide the procedural knowledge while the public education system provides the declarative and the broader learning. The provision of quality vocational education should also improve opportunities for those who wish to progress wholly within “academic”, or non-vocational learning. The big challenge is to break down the social and class barriers that have been erected between “academic” and vocational education without converting state schools, colleges or universities into training establishments. To this extent, Lord Baker’s thoughts on secondary education, with a greater focus on vocational education post-14, will bear more scrutiny than Michael Gove’s narrow-minded EBacc.
To reduce education to training will aggravate the injustices and inequalities entrenched in the English education system by reinforcing the barriers which protect the preferential access to higher paid, more secure, employment enjoyed for those who attend the more influential fee-paying schools. It is unsurprising that the Coalition government is made up almost entirely of men from fee-paying schools, nor that they should appoint their own type of men to other public posts, nor that they should listen almost exclusively to men of their own type.