It has finally come to my attention that someone else besides me is actually reading this blog. This creates its own kind of pressure, of course, to keep things coming to satisfy the needs of an avid readership (or not). There is a parallel universe to this, which some colleagues in the Shenley Brook End cluster were talking about yesterday, and that is the continual pressure that is exerted from the Department of Education (and OFSTED as their alter ego)  to bring out new initiatives or announcements of initiatives every other day or so. Maybe they feel under pressure to keep announcing things in case we forget they are there. Anyway, the issue that got heads exercised (and some in school, too) was the culling of up to 3000 vocational qualifications, some of which (by no means all) were the equivalent of more than one GCSE.  Of course, the press dived onto the seemingly wackier ones – hairdressing, horse grooming and fish husbandry among them. Some thought present themselves:

  • Being fair to the Secretary of State, he is only talking about actioning the recommendations (or some of them) of Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education, commissioned last year. Vocational Education is in need of serious overhaul, and those who love and respect it (and I count myself in that category) should acknowledge the need.
  • If we had a serious apprenticeship program and culture in this country, then it is unlikely that some of these subjects would have migrated to school. The long term logical outcome of comprehensive education is that everything for which young people need to be educated will eventually be provided for in some sort of broad education system, and we cannot pretend both to be comprehensive in our approach and then suggest that some subjects should not be seen as school subjects.
  • We are hamstrung in this approach by our history. The biggest cultural difference between the UK and most European (and a few Asian and North American) education systems is that the class divide that has bedevilled British politics since at least the 16th century (and probably as far back to the Norman invasion) finds its educational outworking in the grammar/secondary modern debate, the universities/polytechnics debate of the 1990s, the “classical subjects” versus “vocational subjects” debate and the general feeling among the ruling elite that unless you are doing “proper subjects” in school, you are not “educated”. Ken Robinson’s comment on this is that “many people who are highly intelligent and successful in their careers remember only failure at school”. This is an enormous area to get into, and right now I am not going there, but we need to keep in mind that many countries respect and honour technical education as much as and even more than the academic or gymnasium stream.

Time for another European diversion. This is a picture of the bike shed of the Stanislas College in Delft. It has 4000 students and is in Holland, ergo it has one of the world’s largest bike sheds.  I visited there just over 6 years ago as part of an Arion (now CEDEFOP) visit to look at how Modern Foreign Languages were taught in the Netherlands. Dutch education can be pretty brutal at age 12 – at the end of primary education you get separated on the basis of teacher recommendation, parental preference and a non-statutory test into either a gymnasium stream, leading eventually to university entrance, or to a technical stream, leading to a profession or trade. Most schools do one or the other. Our visit included a day at Het Amsterdams Lyceum in central Amsterdam which only taught the gymnasium stream, and was a languages specialist school.

Back to Delft…Stanislas College had a fantastic gymnasium program, leading to the acquisition of several modern European languages, and the options of Latin (essential for lawyers in Holland) and Greek. But, alongside, and equally valued, was a high quality technical traning program, part of the college, but with carpentry, electronics, bricklaying, building, roofing, motor mechanics, plumbing, accountancy, office management – and plenty of others I have forgotten. Students followed a basic gymnasium program for two years before then cutting the “formal” education side to 50% of the time and devoting the remainder of the taught time for four years from 13-17 to learning a trade that was then fully accredited by the trade organisations in Holland.

It wasn’t perfect, of course; it was noticeable that there was a significantly higher number of Turkish and Moroccan students in the technical stream, and, being Holland, there were a couple of kids leaning on the wall during break time smoking things that did not smell much like tobacco.

But the deep desire to have an egalitarian society, to strive for this as a national aspiration and to treat all sorts of education as worthwhile and of high value – these are surely things that we desperately need in the UK, one of the four most unequal societies in the western world. We can talk about closing the gap all we want, and must strive for it all the time, but we have to have a broader vision of what we want for young people than just squeezing them through a very narrow schooling set around ten or twleve subjects and only really caring about two of them.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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