We are sentient beings, not skills machines

21st March 2008 at 00:00

The writing was on the wall for non-vocational education as early as 2001, when the Learning and Skills Council came on the scene. It was perfectly clear from the speeches of John Harwood, its first chief executive, that the ethos of colleges was to be a long way from the idea of intellectual learning that might be associated with their more privileged cousins, the universities.

This week it was announced that the council is to be replaced with the Skills Funding Agency for post-19 education. This does not represent a policy change, but it does show how far we have come.

If we want a more successful society, it is argued, we need skilled people. If we want a fair society, we need a wider range of people to have the opportunity to gain those skills.

But is this the whole picture? Is the general population not to be encouraged to enjoy the enrichment derived from learning simply for the broadening of the mind?

We need people to be skilled, but a successful society depends upon much more than this. We need people to understand the world around them; to have a view about politics and the nature of society; to be able to express themselves through art; to question those in authority; to live life to the full and not simply exist as the raw material from which employers can make profit and governments can extract tax.

Is such learning to be the preserve of those in universities? And if vocational education is so important, why is it that academic degrees are appropriate for those entering the professions of the privileged - such as the law, politics and journalism?

We remain a country divided between the artisan classes, who are required to do, and the privileged, who are allowed to think.

The Government has been right - indeed courageous - in insisting on employability as the first priority for FE, but it risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater with its subservience to the god of skills.

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