Government policy, even when wrong, can usually be understood. Recent proposals for ‘chain gangs’ of offenders in high vis jackets for example might make no sense in terms of reducing crime but are explicable as an appeal to authoritarian voters. Expert advice was clear that the privatisation of the probation service was doomed to failure, but it was driven by Conservative ideology that sees the public sector as second best. Sometimes, however, a policy is pursued that simply defies rational explanation.
Consider the case of vocational education, the underreported sector that trains young people for occupations like hairdressing, catering and construction. In England there is a well-functioning market for vocational qualifications where customers are able to choose between competing products. The market is tightly regulated, and both the producers and users of rival qualifications seem broadly happy with present arrangements. The government, however, proposes to replace the market with a state-run monopoly overseen by civil servants and answerable to ministers. It is pushing ahead with its plans in the teeth of opposition from education bodies including the teacher unions. Why on earth would a Conservative government even contemplate such a step?
The push for simplification
The short answer given by ministers is that they wish to simplify the system to make it more attractive. The range of qualifications that can be studied as alternatives to ‘A’ levels is currently wide. Whitehall has consistently argued that this confuses potential students, parents and employers and this is reflected in the low status of vocational education in England.
The recent push for simplification has its origins in a report by Lord Sainsbury, published in 2016. The report was highly critical of the fact that vocational education in England involved “22,140 certificates offered by 160 different awarding organisations” and made recommendations to “to streamline the system substantially”. It made much of the fact that “someone aiming for a future career in plumbing has 33 qualifications to choose from.”
The need for simplification is superficially plausible but a few facts should give cause for reflection. Most importantly, government has not provided any serious evidence that those engaged in vocational education are at all confused by the current system. Those most confused appear to be politicians and civil servants which is perhaps not surprising since most will have no experience of it. They almost certainly studied A levels and a degree. It is significant that those most closely involved in delivering vocational education have consistently argued for caution in reducing the range of options open to individuals.
Even assuming Lord Sainsbury’s figures are correct, a potential vocational student faces a less complex choice than a potential undergraduate. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) there are some 50,000 degree courses offered by 395 different institutions – over twice the level of complexity deemed intolerable for plumbers or pastrycooks. Do the mandarins think that vocational students are less able to exercise choice?
Moreover, we have been here many times before. Thirty years before Lord Sainsbury discovered the ‘complexity’ of vocational education proposals were put forward for “reforming the complex and often confusing system of vocational qualifications at present used in England” . On several occasions subsequently government has sought to simplify the system around a set of new, centrally designed qualifications. On each occasion they failed.
This time is different. The new qualifications intended to simplify the system are called T levels. T stands for technical, though the word is used in a pretty broad way to include, for example, childcare or human resources. Instead of allowing T levels to find their place in the market, however, government is seeking to enforce their success by denying funding to most other vocational qualifications, regardless of their current popularity or utility. It is an act of staggering arrogance even for this most arrogant of governments.
Whitehall may well get away with this coup because the media take little interest in it. Vocational education tends to be seen as a good idea but for other people’s children and it is poorly understood. Many people, however, have heard of BTECs (the acronym reflects the now defunct business and technician education council from which they originated) and opposition to the latest proposals are crystallising around their fate.
BTECs, and similar courses like Cambridge Technicals, provide an alternative to A levels as a route to university or into a profession and are taken by over 200,000 young people each year. They are more likely to be studied by students from disadvantaged backgrounds or ethnic minorities and more likely to be offered in further education colleges than selective 6th forms. They are sufficiently well established, however, to have strong support from higher education institutions, particularly those concerned to widen participation, as well as from schools and colleges. Lord Baker, former Conservative Education minister has called the plans to axe them “an act of educational vandalism”.
High risk policy
Even supporters of the policy must concede that it is high risk. It threatens to undermine the policy of ‘levelling up’ opportunities for the disadvantaged. It risks damaging vocational education if more students opt for long established A levels over untested T level courses many of which have not been written yet. It risks undermining confidence and capacity in a further education system that has suffered disproportionately from funding cuts.
It is not clear why this zombie policy commands such consistent support within the Department for Education in the face of opposition from almost all knowledgeable observers and repeated evidence of failure.
One thing is certain, however. Only a Secretary of State with the unique combination of arrogance and ignorance exhibited by Gavin Williamson could have agreed to drive it forward in this reckless way.