Why the Government’s ‘back to the future’ approach to education won’t work

Patrick Ainley3

Patrick Ainley

Following Justine Greening’s speech at the Conservative Party Labour conference yesterday, Patrick Ainley, author of Betraying a generation: How education is failing young people reflects on the state of English Education under Theresa May’s government.

Theresa May has reorganised English state education by putting teaching in the universities and colleges together with schools for the first time.

Despite university research remaining at the service of industry in the renamed Department of Business, this consolidation gives an appearance of strategic planning but relentless competition remains the misguided method to ‘raise standards’ from primary to postgraduate schools. This leaves students at all levels studying harder but learning less as assessment increasingly takes the place of teaching.

Grammar schools: playing politics with education

The grammar schools proposal has taken playing politics with education to a new low. Perhaps deliberately disclosed before the Party Conference, it was seemingly intended to appear reassuringly retrogressive, keeping on side Tories sympathetic with UKIP, the only other party wanting more grammar schools. As it is likely to be defeated in parliament, May has already clarified, ‘It does not mean bringing back binary schooling but opening up the system’.

“The grammar schools proposal has taken playing politics with education to a new low.”


So secondary moderns, which are the corollary of grammar schools, will be restored in just six pilot ‘opportunity areas’. Here secondary moderns will link to proposals for ‘technical education’ in a report from Lord Sainsbury issued in July. These – plus 500 more ‘free schools’ – are unlikely to appease the majority of parents whose children fail to get into the new grammars.

The broad range of opposition that has gathered against any return to selection tends to fall back on defending the existing academic competition between schools as better enabling (upward) ‘social mobility’. Only it doesn’t. Social mobility in this century is downward – unlike the limited upward social mobility that existed for a short period in the last century. Any number of grammar schools will not change this.

Why we can’t do apprenticeships like the Germans

Similarly, bringing back ‘apprenticeships’ will not transform the UK’s deregulated and deskilled service economy into a productive and highly regulated one like Germany’s. Yet May’s government is still committed to David Cameron’s promise of three million apprenticeships by 2020 even though these are too often without legal guarantee of employment, often semi-skilled and many in services not really requiring prolonged training. According to DBIS surveys, one-in-three apprentices were unaware they were on an apprenticeship and one-in-five reported receiving no formal training, whilst 6% of apprenticeships lasted less than the legal minimum 12 months.

“According to DBIS surveys, one-in-three apprentices were unaware they were on an apprenticeship.”

The basic problem is most employers don’t want or need apprenticeships since automating technology and flexible employment results in down-sizing and deskilling. If they do need them, they run them themselves. They certainly don’t want to run them for government, as Sainsbury recommends ‘empowering’ them to do. Hence employers’ reluctance to pay the apprentice levy, which the Conservatives unexpectedly foisted upon large companies and then – contrary to expectations – said they still have to pay despite ‘Brexit’.

More graduates don’t mean more graduate jobs

Apprenticeships represent the same supply-side solution that promises, as Blair and Brown did when they expanded entry to higher education, that more graduates mean more graduate jobs. Instead, most degrees offer at best access to semi-professional employment. But because many young people are desperate for this promised security, they keep applying to university – 4% more this year, a new record. Many will never repay their raised fee debt because more than 25% of graduates earn less than the £21k repayment threshold even ten years after graduating. Meanwhile universities desperately competing to survive in the market for fee-bearing students continue to provide courses of little utility and sometimes dubious quality.

The government now hopes to reduce student numbers by raising the highest fees in the world for institutions meeting the new ‘Gold Standard’ of ‘Teaching Excellence’ by complying with various behavioural measures of student learning, supporting free and grammar schools, widening participation, improving completion and ‘raising attainment’ (grades!). At the same time private sector providers are subsidised to offer cut-price, two-year degrees to drive some of the existing universities out of business or into merger.

An alternative solution

What is actually required of a National Education Service worthy of the name is a general education for all to 18, learning about work across a range of occupations, not narrow training to work in all too often obsolescent employment. It would afford an entitlement to a free higher education, which also needs to refind its vocational purpose – including the academic vocation. At the same time, proper apprenticeships for socially useful and sustainable work should be delivered by further education colleges linking schools to universities in partnership with private industries and public services committed to job creation. Scotland’s new Labour Market Strategy provides an example of such an alternative approach.

betraying-a-generation-fcFind out more about Patrick Ainley’s vision of how schools, colleges and universities can begin to contribute towards a more meaningful and productive society in his book, Betraying a generation. Order your copy here for just £7.99 today.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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