And on to Shakespeare: bricklayers leave now
Maybe next year I'll be hitting the cut-and-paste buttons again to rename the same section "absolutely necessary skills" or even "totally fundamental skills". But, will the emphatic title change convince either my students or me that skills training really is "essential" to my English lessons? In GCSE and A-level language and literature classes we obviously spend a great deal of time engaged in various forms of communication; my students often work with others and it has been known for us to make occasional forays into the computer room. Does flagging up to my students that these are the "essential" skills, imply that everything else we may do, such as reading and appreciating great works of literature, is of less significance? I would argue that the focus on skills reduces education to the lowest common denominator. By focusing on the essential skills component of subjects, we replace the academic or vocational content with a core curriculum of basic skills. Literature lessons become literacy exercises, class discussions turn into communication tasks. Teaching that emphasises only that which is considered essential, lends itself to an entirely functional view of education. The implication is that students are not in college to be inspired, for the love of a subject or for personal interest - their purpose in FE is to collect certificates acknowledging their basic skills, as children collect stars for a chart. 21st Century Skills, the Government's proposals for the future of FE, assume just this approach. It declares that skills are fundamental because employers demand them. Bosses, so the argument goes, are not interested in whether prospective employees speak Greek or have a detailed knowledge of ancient history, what they want is for them to be able to spell, add up and use a computer. The effect of this is to create an entirely functional education system - students, as consumers, invest time and money, and expect to be rewarded with a currency of certificates they can cash in for a job. The final exam is focused on from day one of many courses - not just because of league tables and performance-related pay - but increasingly because it is what the students expect.
21st Century Skills gives employers an unprecedented stake in the content of the curriculum and how it is assessed. College staff will be expected to meet local employers to ascertain skills requirements and "raise the demand for skills" although this latter proposal suggests to me that there perhaps isn't the huge skills shortage we are led to believe. Do employers know what is best for education? One proposal mooted by the Department for Education and Skills is that all courses should be broken down into modules so that students need sit only those parts of the course judged necessary by their employers. I dread the day I have to stand in front of my adult GCSE class and announce that as we are moving on to the Shakespeare module, the office workers, bricklayers and nurses can go home as they will not be needing to know anything about Macbeth.
Skills teaching is also considered important because it promotes inclusiveness. Economic inequality is rewritten by the DfES as a distinction between the "skills rich" and the "skills poor". Narrowing the skills gap, it is thought, will result in a more just and cohesive society.
This inevitably leads to a focus on basic skills - back to numeracy and literacy again - reflected this year in a financial shift towards funding only lower level courses. My problem is not with teaching basic skills but the fact that teaching anything beyond basic skills is called into question. We can get a student interested in studying, but should they wish to pursue their course beyond level 2, they are left to foot the bill themselves.
FE lecturers need to remind themselves of why they teach the subjects they do. At some point we've all been inspired by a great teacher, had a passion ignited for a particular book, been encouraged to push ourselves that little bit further to master something unfamiliar. Enthusiasm, passion and interest are catching and our students deserve our inspiration not to be crushed under a weight of skills - no matter how essential they may be.
Joanna Williams is a lecturer in English at Thanet college in Kent