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Technical education should not be the poor relation

It is about time for technical education to be afforded the respect it deserves, Elizabeth Draper writes

Technical education has been the poor relation for too long

Our young people are suffering. Secondary and post-16 education needs to be seriously readjusted. This is a necessary and increasingly urgent need, as we can painfully see around us in society today.

So, our current educational system perpetuates inequality – should we not work more strategically to eliminate a divide that skews young people’s choices?

Should we not be pioneering an educational process that allows for students of any social/economic background to have a fundamentally more rounded education from which they can positively choose combinations, mixes of practical, vocational and academic – so they can be plumbers in the morning and solving maths problems, coding or talking about politics/philosophy in the afternoons?

Or engaging in an educational alternative that better equips them for life out there.  Is it the best way forward to have a system that so divides our young people – as can be seen when you walk around sixth forms packed to the rafters with students sweating over A levels, even when they are struggling; as A levels are seen as the gold standard all effort is put into herding students through the A-level gateways.


Read more: Halfon: FE cuts were 'not an accident'

More views: Good enough for other people's children but not for mine

Background: Vocational study should not be cast as academia's poor relation


Those who are not achieving the A-level way are treated as second class citizens. Look to the Treasury, funding formulas. If we had a greater mix and switch in schools and in sixth forms there is a higher chance that attitudes steeped in snobbery towards the non-academic would diminish. If practical and vocational skills were an intrinsic part of all children’s curriculum, just as academic skills are currently: Surely this more holistic approach would improve our society.

What is wrong with all young people having an equal amount of time learning technical and vocational skills where currently they are expected to concentrate the majority of their efforts on learning academic skills at school?

Let’s get rid of unhelpful divides in school. Not technical, vocational versus academic but technical, vocational, social and academic: An all-inclusive equally weighted learning experience for all our children.

The horrendous social and economic class divide in our society can be seen when we look at what is going on in our schools up and down the country and in our post-16 provision.

FE experience 'is ignored'

Of course, plumbing versus writing an opera or finding a cure for cancer, to pretend these are just different pathways is wrong. Generally, the middle-classes and upper-middle-classes don’t opt to train to become plumbers, car mechanics, hairdressers, firefighters, bricklayers.

Maybe we need to have a school system that is more integrated, holistic and less academically biased. More healthy. Then we can also have a more balanced situation in post-16 education, and in wider society too while we are at it.

If you look at FE provision, you can learn a lot about our society and the way it is structured to favour the wealthy and more educated classes who are hugely advantaged. FE tells you what needs to be done to improve the life chances of many where schools have not worked, schools were not sufficiently designed to meet their skills, talents, needs.

Government ministers are predominantly ignorant of FE experience, few themselves have had the benefits of FE and fewer still have ever stepped inside an FE college.

Hangover from tripartite system

Therefore FE is not within their radius of policy vision or a known concern of any particularly pressing urgency to them. We know that FE has been too often ignored and neglected, and for far too long, perhaps because of this institutional ignorance in the civil service and the machines of government.

For too long FE has not been sufficiently thought through or indeed understood by governments. If the machines of government were to look at FE and follow back through the lives of our students they would learn so much about what is wrong with our value system where the priorities, as reflected in our education system, are just economically and morally wrong.

We have an unhelpful academic/vocational divide that is most acutely seen in post-16 provision. A deeply felt hangover from the dreadful tripartite system of long ago, the days of secondary moderns, grammar and technical schools.

The UK is crying out for a non-segregated model of education that is based on providing a meaningful education for life, to enable our children to learn the skills, knowledge and critical understanding that will support them in their development into healthy human beings.

'Systemic poor treatment of colleges'

This is a necessary and increasingly urgent need, as we can painfully see around us in society today. What is wrong with all young people learning practical and vocational skills, where currently all young people are expected to learn academic skills?

Let’s get rid of this unhealthy divide and imbalance that alienates and divides too many young people in our secondary schools and thereafter. It should also follow that what is on offer in FE will be better understood and more highly valued. 

The systematic poor treatment of FE colleges reflects the historical and current neglect that many who do not fit the academic model have suffered.

On the part of successive governments, FE has been underfunded and has been in the egregious position of providing education and training on a shoestring.

'Give FE a higher status'

This means quality provision is undermined and thus the whole second rate attitude that is flung on FE continues. As thing stand, FE is for those with a less traditional academic background and is generally the site of vocational training. 

In the UK we should be able to offer a properly resourced and funded, enhanced, learning process for all in post-16 education; an adult education body in a wider thriving affordable environment within which we can offer supplementary holistic education eg. reading, literacy, numeracy schemes and so on.

We need to give more weight to technical training and skills and give higher status to FE.

Elizabeth Draper has worked in post-16 education for over 25 years

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