Education is not just skills

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Training is something that I'm in favour of. Skills are necessary in life and have to be acquired. Education is also something that I'm in favour of, because education is something we value for its own sake. The Government, if Bill Rammell's utterances are a guide, seems, in practice, if not in rhetoric, to value skills alone. Reading philosophy - or Jane Austin - is merely "leisure".

There used to be attempts to close the gap between "training" and "education" through introducing something called "vocational education".

These attempts were always problematic, especially when an additional adjective was added, and with ideas like "liberal" vocational education, the whole project slid into meaninglessness.

The motivation behind such initiatives was clearly progressive in the sense that, even if you were on a vocational course, it was felt that you deserved more than mere training. The result was most often a period or two added offering "general education".

General education departments thrived on the idea of vocational education and they have a literary legacy in Tom Sharpe's Wilt and subsequent novels.

There were even sophisticated philosophical attempts, led by Professor Richard Pring and others, to argue for a broader concept of education that bridged this simplistic dichotomy, based on a more holistic concept of a person. The academic and vocational divide was held to be a false dichotomy. Both the intellectual, subject-based idea of a liberal education and vocational training were aspects of a rounded education.

No one was convinced. The problem seemed to be that, whatever philosophical niceties or policy proposals there were, academic courses continued to have more status than vocational courses. Experts bemoaned the low status that vocational courses have. "Parity of esteem" for vocational courses became the challenge.

This parity of esteem is something I'm not in favour of. It's academic courses that no longer have parity of esteem.

Listening to sixth-formers and college students around the country debate the topic "Education for its own sake is a bit dodgy", inspired by Charles Clarke's infamous remark when he was Secretary of State for Education, I was amazed by their instrumentalism. With a few exceptions, they could not really comprehend the idea that education is not a means to an end but a value in itself. One contributor even pointed out with mock horror that his postman had an English degree! Wasting the postie's time and tax payer's money getting a leisure degree! Youthful arrogance is almost excusable, but similar views are held by everyone, including politicians, who see education as a way of solving social problems.

Education has been reduced to a set of skills focusing on whatever whimsy the wonks can get the politicians into a panic about. Anything obviously not vocational is just leisure, and the argument is that you should pay for it, just as you pay for the cinema or bingo.

Ensuring the future of anything like adult education as it was means winning the argument for education for its own sake. Giving in to instrumentalism and talking about adult education meeting social needs or building basic skills will not win the philistines over to providing education.

Left-wing educationists used to put the argument for vocational education in terms of an end to the class-based division between mental and physical labour. In an ironic way, they have now got what they desired, as the instrumentalist obsession with skills has made that simple distinction redundant by doing away with any sense that the life of the mind is to be valued.

As I expected, this dominant instrumentalism influenced Sir Andrew Foster's consultation about the future of FE colleges. His much-welcomed review was both predictable and out of any logical order. The Government has given us a review of qualifications (Tomlinson) and a review of colleges (Foster) before a review of the skills the economy may need (Leitch). Leitch will confirm the instrumental argument about improving skills because what these reports are doing is repeating what is now merely an article of faith for policy-makers, and one that must not be challenged.

What Foster should have given us, instead of the "skills imperative", was a defence of education for its own sake. Without this, further, and even higher education, will have no future. There will be less and less to inspire students with and nothing to combat the philistinism of those sixth-form and college student debaters. The only way forward is to keep simple distinctions in mind and defend education because it is education and to remember that training is a different thing.

Having an education, although we can't equate it with having a degree, is a good thing, and it is a good thing for any postman or plumber to have.

Steve, the plumber who just put a shower in my bathroom, has a degree in sociology. From conversations we've had, it's clear his understanding of sociological theory is pretty good. Our discussion held up the work, to my cost, but the shower's pretty good too.

Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university

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