Steph McGovern on a mission to champion vocational education

The BBC presenter has a 'real issue' with the mainstream media's failure to look beyond academic education

Steph McGovern AoC WorldSkills

“Well this is awkward,” tweeted Steph McGovern, when it emerged that two primetime BBC TV programmes she had presented were going to be aired at the same time one Friday night.

Since coming into the national consciousness as a presenter on BBC Breakfast in 2012, McGovern’s profile has grown rapidly. She joined Watchdog in 2016, and last month hosted satirical news quiz Have I Got News for You for the first time.

But Middlesbrough-born McGovern is in no doubt as to her proudest achievement in broadcasting to date: seeing students receiving their vocational exam results on live TV.

On the day before the customary blanket coverage of students receiving their A-level results this summer, McGovern achieved something rather special. She virtually single-handedly created a day on which the various BBC News platforms would celebrate the achievements of students taking vocational qualifications.

Championing vocational education

“The 1.5 million people who did A levels last year got a day of national media coverage, but what about the 3.8 million people who took vocational qualifications?” she wrote at the time.

The move came about, she tells Tes, following a meeting with BBC news bosses earlier this year. “I pointed out to them that we always celebrate A-level results day, but we never see people opening their results for vocational [qualifications]. They were all like, ‘I’d not thought of that’. Then I pointed out to them that one in four university entrants gets in with a BTEC, and that really hit home.

“They instantly got it, and thought ‘You’re right, we’re underserving people who have taken a different path but are equally important’. Straight away, once I pointed this out to them, they were totally up for it across news, and said we’ll definitely do it every year.”

The move was not without its difficulties – not least because there isn’t a single day on which vocational qualification results are announced, as happens with A levels. But a little behind-the- scenes negotiating with the likes of City & Guilds, Pearson and OCR soon resulted in BBC TV, radio and online news covering stories of students getting their BTECs and other vocational qualifications.

'Worthwhile' achievement

“That was quite tricky, because we’d never done it before on any mainstream media,” she says. “But then, when we did it, I think it’s probably the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done on telly.

“I got so many messages from people saying things like, ‘That’s what my daughter did, I’m so pleased the media is seeing this as something useful and important and valued’. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

And McGovern’s passion for vocational and further education is not only apparent once a year. Next week, she will be hosting the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) annual conference in Birmingham for the third time. She has also managed to secure significant coverage on BBC Breakfast for the UK’s competitors in the international WorldSkills competitions.

McGovern attended the last two contests, in Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi; she ended up taking annual leave to cover the competitions, having being unable to convince her editor that the costs should be covered by the BBC.

'Olympics for skills'

“Understandably, the BBC can’t afford for people to just go off to far-flung places on a story that they wouldn’t normally cover,” she says. “So that’s why I wanted to do it myself, because I think there’s real value in this. It’s showcasing what is essentially the Olympics for skills. It’s something that we don’t see in the media, these great heroes we have in the skills sector, and yet we constantly talk about the skills gap. I want to marry the two. We talk about the skills gap but why don’t we applaud the people who are doing what we lack?”

McGovern admits that she is “forever” trying to get WorldSkills competitors on TV. “The great thing is, they are such articulate speakers too, because they work in industry so they know how to hold themselves, they know how to deal with questioning. They’re so good at explaining what they do because they’ve had to do it so many times by this point.

“I just think they’re great advocates. Like Ashley Terron, one of the world’s best bricklayers…I know Love Island and programmes like that have a place in society, but it would be great to see more people like Terron on TV. He’s very funny and very articulate, a lot of the competitors are. They make me laugh loads, they are funny – the types of peoples you’d want to be your mates.” She pauses. “I’m a bit too old for them to be my mates, but you’d want your kids to be like them.”

While McGovern describes herself as a “swot” when she was at school, and someone who went through a traditional academic education, her schooling was heavily influenced by the world of industry.

Not just academic

At 16, she won an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship – she describes it as a “glorified apprenticeship” with Black and Decker, adding “I definitely learned more from that year than anything else”. At the age of 19, she was named Young Engineer for Britain, after saving the company £150,000 a year by improving its production techniques. McGovern then studied science communication and policy at University College London.

After doing work experience on Tomorrow's World, she went on to become a business news producer, first for the Today show on Radio 4, and then across BBC News before finding a regular slot on breakfast TV.

But McGovern’s beliefs in education, cemented during her time at school, remain strong. “I come from a background where a lot of my mates from school went and did apprenticeships, BTECs and the like, and they weren’t valued as much as other people,” she recalls. “And yet they’ve gone on to be incredibly successful people. I have a real issue with that.

“I have an issue that I’m seen as the swotty one, and yet actually it’s not my academic background that makes me good at what I do, it’s all the vocational things I did. [At school] we were really encouraged to think about what we could do in industry, and there was a real end goal to what we were doing.”

At the AoC conference, the shortlists will be announced for both the Tes FE Awards and the AoC Beacon Awards. It is vital to recognise the “people who work really hard behind the scenes” in the further education sector, McGovern believes.

“We can all be miserable about the tough time with budgets and everything else, but there are also people working really hard. It’s a good time for people to come together to celebrate,” she adds.

Tes is media partner for the AoC Annual Conference, which takes place on November 20 and 21 at the ICC, Birmingham.

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