Tony Blair wrote in his memoir that you could declare war in a speech about skills and nobody would notice. Skills, vocational training and further education are all worthy issues, and all fiendishly complicated to fix.
But could the tide finally be turning? In the US, Matthew Crawford’s book The Case for Working with Your Hands has captured a growing sense of disillusionment with the education system. There is so much emphasis on making it to university via academic routes, yet little understanding of the vocational trades: how to make, fix and repair things. He makes an eloquent defence of vocational training in the digital age: “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.” This disconnection from our material world alienates us from the world of work, but is equally disastrous for economic productivity.
In London, Crawford’s analysis rings true. There is no greater challenge in education than the need to strengthen our post-16 system. Our schools are doing very well and academic results continue to climb, but we need to ensure people of all ages have access to excellent technical training. It is not only vital to growing businesses, but ensuring that Londoners of all backgrounds can find fulfilling work.
In all the current debates about the area reviews and devolution, there is understandably much emphasis on structural change and financial efficiencies. Yet this is also an incredible opportunity to radically rethink and turbo-charge our much-neglected FE sector; giving it a renewed sense of purpose in a changing world. If, as many believe, the reputation of vocational education has been tainted by low-quality qualifications, then we need to rethink its purpose and how best to teach it.
This is not an anti-academic argument. It is simply to recognise that the deep questions, “What is education for?” and “What do people need to learn?” are just as vital in the vocational sector. The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning in 2013 led the way by focusing attention on the need for high-quality teaching and leadership.
I have visited many excellent colleges in London, but it is clear that the centralised system has not been flexible enough to encourage innovation, collaboration and a system-wide approach. Funding by qualification has driven colleges to focus on lower-level skills, and the growing demand from students for basic-level provision (combined with short-termism of funding) has created extra pressure. There is still excellent higher-level technical training, but we need to boost this to meet the needs of London. Employers need more incentive to engage and to feel that they are getting the training they need.
We also need new answers to ongoing social challenges: the growing need for Esol (English for speakers of other languages) teaching; supporting young people to get their English and maths GCSEs; improving careers education; and providing adult skills training, particularly for the most disadvantaged students.
A pan-London system, championed by the mayor and boroughs, is a chance to work in a much more sophisticated and joined-up way. What does excellence in our colleges and skills sector look like and how do we share good practice? How can we work together to solve the recruitment problem? How do we ensure as a city that we have strong local provision, alongside specialist centres of technical excellence? These are vital questions for London’s economy, and as we head into the area reviews and devolution, we need to be informed by a belief that vocational education is not simply an add-on but that it is essential to the capital’s future success.
Munira Mirza is London’s deputy mayor for education and culture