We must listen to reason on technical education

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
Why the UK should follow Austria’s example and prize vocational learning

Most of the time when people leave a job, it’s because they’ve been offered another one, or they’re retiring. Not me: I’m leaving the Edge Foundation in August for the simple but pretentious reason that I want to write a book about technical and vocational education.

My connection with Edge goes back more than a decade, but I first stumbled into the world of vocational education and training in 1989 when I was appointed director of what was then the National Association of Master Bakers. That said, I was selected for my knowledge of Whitehall and Westminster, not because I knew anything about training. I had a degree in politics, for heaven’s sake.

My bosses, on the other hand, had something called a “City and Guilds”. But here’s the thing: they were the ones driving BMWs, not me. They were running their own businesses and liked what they were doing. They were talented, amusing and (whisper it softly) extremely intelligent. It gradually dawned on me that no one had told me about this option when I was at school. Because I did well in traditional subjects, I was expected to take A levels and go to university. No one mentioned that I had a choice. That still strikes me as hugely unfair.

So anyway, I got stuck into designing national occupational standards, NVQs and the first modern apprenticeship frameworks for bakers, which set a whole new direction for my career. My next move was to the Hotel and Catering Training Company. Then, in 1999, I was appointed chief executive of North Yorkshire Training and Enterprise Council, before transferring to the Learning and Skills Council. Along the way, I gained extra experience and insights as a non-executive director of the Training Standards Council.

Snobbery persists

At Edge, I’ve had the privilege of researching and writing about models of technical and vocational education across the UK and beyond. I’ve seen some fantastic examples of good practice. More to the point, I’ve met hundreds (thousands) of people whose lives have been transformed by practical, hands-on education and training. But I still encounter snobbery and ignorance on an almost daily basis.

Britain’s elite believes that there is something almost shameful about working in a factory, shop or building site. It’s taken as read that the “best” jobs involve working in an office, a studio or a hospital. And that leads to the false but enduring conclusion that some forms of learning are intrinsically “better” than others.

These attitudes date back well over a century. Prince Albert was alarmed by Prussian industrial development in the mid 19th century. He realised that to keep pace, Britain needed more and better technical education. But the governing elite – educated in the Classics, not engineering – didn’t agree. They stifled attempts to introduce new forms of technical and commercial studies.

Robert Morant, secretary of the Board of Education, set about closing down nascent technical schools in the early years of the 20th century. He also limited public exams for 16-year-olds to English language and literature, maths, science, geography, history and a foreign language. Oh, and drawing – a subject that has inexplicably been omitted from today’s English Baccalaureate.

Highly respected path

The contrast with German-speaking countries remains as powerful as ever. I visited Austria recently, where large numbers of 14- to 19-year-olds choose to attend a höhere technische lehranstalt (HTL), where they combine a core curriculum with their chosen technical specialism. In a country with low youth unemployment, HTLs stand out as the best of the best. Students progress to well-paid jobs and, over time, about half go on to higher education.

I also visited four companies, all of which were closely linked to HTLs. Two were run by former HTL students. All were manufacturing businesses, employing a mixture of engineers, scientists and technicians. These represent the strength and resilience of the Austrian economy – and it’s all founded on outstanding technical education (read my report about the visit at bit.ly/ReportEdge).

This path is highly respected. Technical education is neither second best nor second choice, and it leads to rewarding jobs, pride and respect. I hope that some day, we’ll say the same about technical education in England, and that people will have as much respect for BTECs, City and Guilds qualifications, Cambridge Nationals (and all the rest) as they do for GCSEs and A levels.

David Harbourne is director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation @davidharbourne

UK vs Austria: which is best?

Despite Austria’s reputation for outstanding technical education, the country enjoyed a closely fought contest with the UK at the WorldSkills 2015 competition in Brazil.

In terms of total points earned by competitors, the UK finished seventh overall, one place ahead of Austria. But on the average points measure, the Austrians had the upper hand, finishing eighth – two places ahead of the UK.

Given that the UK’s population is more than seven times bigger than that of Austria, the message seems to be that the latter is punching well above its weight.

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