Last week the Shadow Secretary of State, Tristram Hunt, visited Milton Keynes College three days after publishing the final tract of the Husband's Review of Vocational Learning. Mr Hunt is a telegenic historian of some acumen. What he has little experience of is the world of Further Education. His academic route through life has meant that FE is not something he has grown up understanding or knowing and visiting an FE College (not the first time he has done so) exposed him to the lived reality of the 'other 50%' that his party professes it wishes to value more. My impression is that he learns quickly and listens well. He genuinely understands the importance for the economy, society and young people in particular of getting this part of the education system right.
His visit to the college exposed him to journalism students, Hair and Beauty students, Catering and Hospitality students and the College's elite basketball team, MK Trojan. He was impressed. And so he should be. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes and disciplines. The Whitehall mandarinate and Russell group of universities are but one manifestation of excellence. An FE college displays a bewildering array of all sorts of other types of excellence. So will Mr Hunt's plans for 14-19 reform help the development of more and better pathways for such talent and excellence to shine?
The answer I think is maybe or even probably. Personally I would favour a return to Tomlinson's vision of curriculum reform at a root and branch level but I understand the political necessities of not promising seismic change the year before a general election. And it is clear that Labour gets the challenge. Resources matter, clarity of vision and direction matter, excellence is the goal and FE has as much excellence in its DNA as any other more lauded parts of the education system.
At heart the reforms announced in 'Qualifications matter: improving the curriculum and assessment for all' focus on clarifying routes to success through ensuring an exit qualification for all 18-year-olds. This qualification will be either a general (academic) or technical baccalaureate. Such a reform brings the UK in line with other developed countries in formally recognising a certificated 'graduation' at 18. The proposals do not seek to change existing qualifications such as A levels but more wrap around them Maths, English, (to be studied to 18), employability skills and an extended project. There would be an intermediate version at level 2 for those students not ready for level 3.
In addition the report recommendations bringing LEPs into education through detailing that they must ensure better IAG; places a new duty of care on schools to improve their delivery of IAG, and various ideas designed to strengthen collaboration among education providers, LEPs and others at a local level.
Finally, and perhaps of most significance, is a recommendation for a Cabinet level post to represent skills and qualifications reform. This is important. It would, or should, mean that a heavyweight could be sitting around the Cabinet table come May 2015 arguing for a better resource allocation to be given to delivering this more modern system of education. I have argued for a Ministry for Growth that would combine DfE and BIS but this idea could achieve the same goals for FE.
If these reforms were enacted along with other ideas to better recognise the professionalism of the sector, we could end up creating a system of education that offers genuine parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes. This would be clever politics and smart government. Most importantly it would benefit young people. We ask young people to make decisions on their futures far too soon in their educational lives. The baccalaureate approach enables options to be kept open for longer. In addition making sure that young people have employability skills and better English and Maths will boost UK plc productivity at a time when it is languishing and going backwards. The reasons for this are for another blog but the key point remains. We need more investment in all aspects of education for all young people not just some.
Whatever the outcome of the next General Election the moves towards recognising the importance of a genuinely plural education system are beginning to gather traction. Let's hope Mr Hunt's colleagues in Parliament have his ability to listen and learn.
Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege