Labour has taken a vocational turn. Tristram Hunt’s conference proclamation that we will see ‘the old barriers between academic and technical crumbling under the next Labour government, righting the wrongs of the last five years’ is confirmation.
Having lost the initiative on education to an unambiguously successful political minister in Michael Gove, Labour has gone someway to re-establishing its dominance over a policy area once seen as its three priorities for government. While Ed Miliband remains apparently distanced from education policy – he has not seriously intervened on education in any of his previous conference speeches – the spokes around him are turning quickly. The party, in Andrew Adonis, Liam Byrne, and the Skills Taskforce have placed education, and importantly vocational education, at the centre of Labour’s thinking as we prepare for the general election.
Yet despite the tone the party is taking, the evident recognition that high-quality, well-regarded vocational education is essential to creating an equitable and effective education system, the solutions; a technical baccalaureate, technical degrees, and institutes of technical education, fall short of creating a ‘one nation’ education system.
This shortcoming is symptomatic of a false premise at the heart of education policy, the vocational-academic divide. This divide, which has been stringently reinforced by the current government in its treatment of the further education sector, its deep preference for ‘traditional education’, and the language of deficit and failure, has been accepted by the Labour party. Every time the phrase, ‘the forgotten 50 per cent’, passes a shadow minister’s lips or finds its way into print, the value of ‘vocational’ education is further undermined.
The extent of the influence of this false divide can be felt in the tension within Labour’s education policy, which is calling simultaneously for stability and the maintenance of Goveian academic rigour, at the same time as rallying being a rejuvenated vocational sector. It is very difficult to do both. As long as ‘academic’ achievement remains the priority of the education system, ‘vocational’ education will continue to be regarded as a route B, a solution for the youth unemployed, an option for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent.’
This preference for the academic is detectable even in the policies designed to improve the reputation of vocational education. Renaming vocational qualifications ‘degrees’ and ‘baccalaureates’ is indicative of the fact that vocational qualifications are only regarded as valuable by policymakers in view of their perceived comparability to their academic counterparts. This ‘separate but equal’ approach to equality risks simply rebranding and embedding existing inequalities in the system.
If Labour is to truly create a ‘one nation’ education system then it must be more radical in its thinking on vocational education. It must not renounce democratic responsibility, if the party wins power in 2015, for the sake of stability and security. The false divide at the heart of the education system must be broken down. As any teacher, lawyer, doctor, or architect will testify, vocational skills and academic knowledge are not neatly divisible we should not seek to recreate the vocational in the image of the academic, but instead recognise that the distinction is unhelpful.
Equality between pathways should not be sought in their comparability but in their diversity. Equality should be realised in a variety of educational pathways, each valuable in their own right, reflecting an age where each individual can seek his or her own path. This does not mean we should undermine the strength of our current academic pathways, nor lower the expectations on students regarding core skills.
However, we must desist from thinking of two educational systems, the much praised dual-system approach of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany is a system which has been built within a specific cultural framework to meet specific historical needs. Our policies must reflect our culture and our context. That context calls for a diverse educational offer which offers genuine choice and clear pathways to all students.
To meet this demand, Labour should root its education policy in a commitment to one unified education system, with a one system of funding and one system of qualifications for all education institutions, regulated and monitored in the same manner. This does not mean creating qualifications which are equal by comparison, but equal in value. Only when we have a unified education sector which values a broad range of skills, skills which are in demand from employers, where students are offered genuine choice will we create a one national education system which promotes parity of esteem in education as well as equality more broadly.
Labour should abandon its message of vocational education for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ and start talking about one nation education for all.
Joe Lane is a former teacher now working in further education policy
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.