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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

I mentioned in my last posting Matt Hancock’s excellent advanced apprenticeship for training nurses. They are paid £15,000 for their work on wards, with day release to university to ensure progress to registration and an academic route for those who want it. Compare this with the lot of students working on the wards for nothing, saddled with debt and punitive interest rates, and you will see why one is set to be oversubscribed while the other, even in one of the best teaching hospitals in the world, is struggling. I said that those who imposed this regime on trainee nurses didn’t understand nursing, and this applies to both Labour’s degrees-for-all policy and the neoliberal wing of our own Party. Anyone wishing to understand it might talk to Baroness Cox, or read Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness, which I’ve reviewed here.

A similar scheme is being used in Northampton to train nurses to work in general practice, and the advantages are obvious. Nurses need to know how to do what they need to do, and their work is neither wholly technical, nor necessarily academic, though it is important that this should remain an option. Many of the most important medical advances have been made by scientists rather than doctors, so a research nurse or radiographer with a PhD is as much entitled to the style of Doctor as anyone else, and a sight more so than many of those with “doctorates” in education. Labour, though, saw degrees as a necessary path towards the Blair/Harman/Balls vision of equality and political correctness, and tried to impose it throughout the system. What mattered was the ticket, and it did not matter if what lay behind it was valid or openly faked.

The principle of fitness for purpose needs to be applied to all aspects of technical education and training. Since the 1944 Education Act, this has only happened in patches. Highlights were the OND and HND, including sandwich courses, offered by Polytechnics, City and Guilds, the best FE courses and the small number of grammar technical schools. All of these worked well, though they did not compete with the spires and towers occupied by the likes of Stephen Hawking.

The same snag has hit studio schools and Lord Baker’s University Technical Colleges. Few parents want to move their children into a technical stream at the age of 14, and this is the case across Europe. “Orientation” to a technical route in France is a consequence of academic failure. A friend in Germany, who has completed a high level technical qualification in food production, has recently enrolled in the Gymnasium in his early twenties – the Abitur, Germany’s A-level, is still the route to the top, and can only be entered via this type of school.

The solution is to bring genuine technical education into the comprehensive school or academy alongside academic GCSEs, without Labour’s fraudulent suggestion that one technical course is worth four academic ones. I’ve seen this in practice in four schools. The first, a long time ago in Stepney Green School, offered tailoring; the second, in a medium-sized Essex comprehensive, had motor vehicle maintenance, driving lessons, and practical financial management.

More recently, courses in comprehensive schools have offered combinations of bricklaying, electrical work, carpentry and plumbing, alongside GCSEs, so that they could be pursued without closing other options. Historically, this kind of practical education was held back by objections from unions, leading carpentry or joinery to be described as “manual instruction” and needlework and cooking, as “home economics”.

Some such GCSEs are available. They are, however, dressed up with requirements such as written “portfolios” that require the same underlying literacy skills as other GCSEs, despite their different purposes. As their practical element has to be tested under normal working conditions rather than in examinations, they are also vulnerable to the kind of gaming and cheating that has discredited coursework. A teacher’s touch with a chisel on a dovetail could take a pupil over a grade boundary, and this can never be completely eliminated.

There is, however, far greater satisfaction to a young person in being able to complete these practical tasks successfully, and at times beautifully, than there is in ploughing through subjects that, because of limitations in their ability to handle compressed academic language, are taught at too low a level to sustain their interest. Ebacc, including the opportunity to learn a new language, should remain the core offering of our secondary school system, but there is every reason to use the remaining time for technical education, or indeed arts education, for those who want it, or need it.

42 comments for: John Bald: How to boost technical education in our schools

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