In a recent speech to announce a review into the funding of university courses, the Prime Minister urged parents to “throw away” the old-fashioned attitude that university is the only desirable route for their offspring. The notion that vocational education is for “other people’s children” must change, she said.
Now Education Secretary Damian Hinds has told 100 business and education leaders that we’ve turned into a nation of “technical education snobs”.
Actually, I’d like to hear what the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has to say too. Skilling up the next generation of bricklayers, electricians, IT programmers, software engineers, childcare workers and motor mechanics can’t remain some hazy notion based on ‘equal opportunity’.
Labour has a lot to answer for in this respect. In the name of social mobility, former leader Tony Blair promoted university degrees for all. It was an admirable aim, but it had the knock-on effect of putting technical education in the shade. Now we are all paying the price.
For despite all the efforts of Theresa May and her team, Department for Education figures show a 24 per cent fall in apprenticeship starts for the 2017/18 academic year.
This is catastrophic. The programme should be steaming ahead, buoyed up by the sense that Great Britain needs to become a self-supporting, self-sustaining independent country.
Brexit is a factor of course; many companies, uncertain of what the outcome will be, are unwilling to make long-term commitments to employing further staff. However, this reluctance must sit aside the fact that controls on immigration are stemming the flow of overseas labour which has until now helped to build our homes, cared for our children and elderly people and answered our endless queries in call centres.
The only answer, practically, is to ensure that we have the framework to train enough of our own young people to meet the shortfall. Yet this is clearly not happening.
Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB (Federation of Master Builders) is apoplectic. He is demanding that the Government make further reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy, which supports employers to take on apprentices.
He wants ministers to focus on small businesses instead of assuming that only large construction companies have apprenticeships to offer. “It’s the smaller firms that train more than two-thirds of all apprentices,” he says.
And I’d add that the Government needs to focus on marrying up education and commerce. Not just in the construction industry, but there is simply not enough information and support in all kinds of businesses to help employers take on – and manage – apprentices effectively.
First however, we need to lay a firm foundation. The fundamental and over-riding problem with education is that it has become far too much of a party political issue. Too often, our children’s futures have been held aloft on the altar of political ambition, their learning disregarded in the name of progress.
As a parent, my ideal would be to ring-fence education so that it couldn’t be redrawn every time the political chessboard changes. We need a political consensus and a commitment from all sides to stick with it. This will never happen of course.
The distance between your average state school or college and No 10 Downing Street must be measured in more than miles. There is a distinct lack of understanding – most Cabinet ministers have no idea what it is like to work in or learn in one these days.
With some exceptions, their children tend to be educated privately. And they don’t listen carefully enough to what educational experts and school leaders report back. By dint of a Cabinet post, these distant politicians think they know best.
Is it any wonder then that children and young people have been unwitting guinea pigs in experiment after experiment conducted at the whim of whoever happens to hold a majority in the House of Commons? Comprehensive schools, selective grammar schools, academy schools, over-demanding SATs tests at primary level, GCSE rewrites and of course, university tuition fees.
Against this background, the passion for apprenticeships sits oddly. It seems a throwback, and yet it is a vital tool for the future. It doesn’t get everything right. However, at least this Government does recognise that we can’t run a country on a bunch of twentysomethings equipped with nothing more than a 2:2 in media studies.