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The PM’s conversion to technical education must be a turning point

November 16, 2020

By Lord Young of Graffham

Almost 40 years ago I had agreed with Keith Joseph, our education secretary, with the backing of Margaret Thatcher, to introduce TVEI, the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative directly into the school system. I was the chairman of the Manpower Services Commission, the government agency responsible for training and unemployment programmes, and I had come into government following the 1979 election, with the sole objective of introducing Enterprise generally and technical training into our educational system.

Unemployment was soaring, particularly among the young, our industry was broken down and out of date and technology was beginning to change the world.

With this programme — for the first time – we bypassed the local authorities and worked directly with schools for the provision of material and services to introduce technical and vocational programmes. We were always swamped by demand, and over the years spent time visiting schools I heard the same story on many occasions: pupils who up to then had probably majored in truancy became so enthusiastic and committed that they had to be thrown out of school at 6pm when it closed.

During the 1970s I became involved with ORT, a voluntary body that ran technical schools internationally, with about half a million students at any one time. I saw first-hand that the education system, based as it was on academic values, was failing the average student and how transformational technical education was for so many. I would, from time to time, take shadow Conservative ministers to Paris to see the ORT schools, which would always inspire a tremendous sense of enthusiasm for an alternative approach. At the time it felt like a great realisation – technology was changing the world and we had to change education to keep pace.

When I retired from the cabinet in 1989, I could see TVEI growing steadily. The work we had done making training colleges more employer-focused was bearing fruit. Our efforts to develop technical and vocational qualifications on a par with academic study was being accepted. I thought then, in my innocence, that at long last there was going to be an acceptance in our educational system that vocational training would be an important, if not equal part of the system.

Just over 20 years later, when David Cameron invited me to become his enterprise adviser in No 10, I was appalled to find that over the ensuing years we had wiped out any trace of technical or vocational education. Far worse, there had been an incredible expansion of universities at the expense of polytechnics and training colleges. Nearly half of our young people would spend three years of their lives at university, incurring a debt of upwards of £50,000, and almost invariably were less employable, not more, for the sort of jobs that were open to school leavers they felt was beneath them because now they had a degree.

About a quarter of degrees are, to a greater or lesser extent, vocational. Qualifying as a doctor, architect, scientist, or vet enables graduates to launch themselves into their careers, but the majority of degrees do very little to fit their students for the world of work. I am not a complete Philistine and I do appreciate the value of culture to our society, but it is all a question of balance. To remedy the complete lack of balance in our education system, the government should build a technical training network and transfer resources from university education to this network.

If you look at the way that London and some of our other cities have become technological hubs, it has not been because of our educational system. Go anywhere in Shoreditch, Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham, and you will find young, enthusiastic people who were educated in east Europe or the EU, but not in this country.

Countries far poorer than ours have a far more relevant education system. I can only hope that the conversion of our prime minister is real and marks a major turning point in our education system.

This article was originally published by Red Box

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