Thursday, May 01, 2014

Vocational Education: The Point of Departure

It was a standard ministerial speech, but what Matthew Hancock, UK's Minister of Skills, said yesterday should be noted. Not that the ideas are anything new, educators like Ken Robinson has been talking about them for years, but this amounts to a Ministerial acknowledgement of some sort: That skills education needs to change fundamentally. (See the transcript of the speech here)

The key idea that makes this speech notable is an acknowledgement that the education divide must end. Mr Hancock's point is to eliminate the divide between academic and vocational education, and the labelling that comes with it. As the credo of skills education spreads beyond Europe, this is an important message. One must acknowledge that this is a common refrain among Skills educators: They almost always complain being treated as 'Second Class Educators' by their Higher Ed colleagues. Mr Hancock, being the Minister of the department, may have only been giving voice to it. I am not claiming that this speech is world-changing in any way, but this point needs to made again and again, and to his credit, Mr Hancock made it.

However, he also points out the reason why Skills Education gets a bad name, because it is usually done so badly and has such limited impact. He talked candidly about skills bureaucracy and the awful teaching that goes on in its name, though he tried to ascribe all this to the past and the Labour Government's mismanagement of it. Things have changed little, except that there is more money now being thrown at even more poorly thought through schemes. He also fails to acknowledge that the models of vocational education need a rethink: 'Provider-led' model, where 'colleges' decide what to teach, has so comprehensively failed to have an impact [primarily, I suspect, because this is a top-down model in some form], that one needs to look at other alternatives. 

The other important point made by Mr Hancock relates to what kind of skills one may be looking at. He was speaking on the occasion of the launch of Prospects College of Advanced Technology, a new Further Education college that the government allowed setting up. This is claimed to be a slightly different package than the standard Further Education colleges, with greater focus on advanced technology training. This is, in a way, where vocational education needs to go. Our societies are being transformed by technology, and the idea of vocational education being solely for the misfits and have-nots need to be abandoned as fast as possible: This new college is aligned to such a view of the future.

Would we see more of it? Not sure, because vocational education in this country is sleepwalking into the future (as in most other countries) bound by the unthinking lethargy of the system. There is very little fundamental rethinking on part of the government, and so far, good money was thrown after the bad in schemes that were designed to fail. But Mr Hancock's speech yesterday highlighted a Ministerial ambition worth watching out for.

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I couldn't resist the temptation of also referring to my earlier post on the subject of Education Divide: See 'Higher and Lower Education' here.




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