Allons enfants! It’s time to storm the educational Bastille

A few weeks ago I passed on to you a view that sheer snobbery might have been an encouragement for the diminishing attention placed on trades education in Britain.

I recently came across the following from the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education in the UK in a lecture he gave in 2010:

At crucial moments in the development of our education system the opportunity to embed high-quality technical routes for students was missed.

As [the historian] Corelli Barnett has persuasively argued, the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy at the time of educational expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was disdainful of the practical and technical. While our competitors were ensuring that engineers, technicians and craftsmen were educated to the highest level, British – and specifically English – education reflected an inherited aristocratic disdain for trade. The highest goal of education was the preparation of young men for imperial administration, not the generation of innovation.

He went on to explain his vision of the future.

If one looks at those countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught and assessed alongside – not in place of – technical learning until students reach 15 or 16. That’s why I floated the idea of an English Baccalaureate – a new certificate for all children who achieve a good GCSE[1] pass in English, maths, science, a modern or ancient language and humanity like history or geography. But it is crucial to note securing this core base of knowledge would not preclude the study of technical or vocational subjects.

It’s not either/or but both/and.

But suggestions such as these require us to think differently. It is no longer sustainable to continue to make distinctions between academic and vocational when all education is both. We can no longer describe something as technical rather than professional when it is almost certainly both. And we can no longer place educational experiences into boxes marked secondary and tertiary when the distinctions are spurious.

I write this in the year that the Government has made a commitment to the trades through the Maori and Pacific Trades Training scheme which offers to Maori and Pacific students between the ages of 18 to 34 free education to get them through to Level 4+ qualifications and/or to NZ apprenticeships. I wonder why it is not age 16 that this scheme begins and can only assume that it is because of the view that all students should achieve NCEA Level 2. But that is to respect a barrier that should not be there. The Better Public Service goal is not NCEA Level 2 but rather NCEA Level 2 or equivalent. Again the conventional subjects are privileged over the trades other than in a few innovative programmes offered in a few places. We cannot both want the world to be different but continue to insist that old and sometimes discredited ways of working be respected.

The education systems that we admire and aspire to emulate, especially in regard to equity of outcomes in which we lag far behind, have all solved the issue of giving a fair measure of parity of esteem to trades alongside the conventional school subjects and the best of those systems do so in a setting characterised by multiple pathways which are flexible and to a high degree learner led.

Michael Gove might well be right – it boils down to a deep seated prejudice. Certainly most of the teacher organisation and principals bodies in the UK joined a stampede to condemn him. But more recently the British Labour Party seems to have picked up on his ideas.

Bastille Day is an appropriate day to remind ourselves that considered change is a gentler approach than barricades. Entendez-vous dans les companges the gentle sounds of change?

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