I was delighted when Stephen Twigg MP agreed to deliver his first keynote speech as Shadow Education Secretary at the second Edge Annual Lecture on 2nd November.
Having only been in post for a matter of weeks Stephen came across as passionate about the inherent value of education – “for personal development; for cultural enrichment and to enable people to be good citizens”. He started off by saying “The title of today’s lecture ‘Engaging pathways for all’ reminds us to move on from thinking that university is the only high status means for progression”. He went on to say “Effective investment in education should help the workforce of tomorrow - and indeed today - to get jobs.”
Stephen called for vocational education to be high quality, rigorous, to have a high status and for numeracy and literacy to be at the heart of continuing education, whether people are on an academic or vocational path. He said he wanted apprenticeships to be seen as "the gold standard of post-16 vocational education" and "for parents to be as proud of their children for securing a top apprenticeship as they are if they go to university".
He said the central unanswered question in our policy debate is “what is education for?” We hope to be involved in this debate and look forward to hearing what others have to contribute.
Edge agrees that education needs to support personal development, cultural enrichment and economic success. Vitally, it is a way of helping people find out what they are good at and what they want to do in their adult lives. This means giving them a wide variety of experiences, including learning by thinking, learning by listening and reading, learning by experience and learning by doing. We should not give so much value to one form of learning that it swamps all others.
I was encouraged that Stephen recognised Edge’s contribution to projects such as University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools. I was also pleased to hear that he supports the work of Futures First, a project funded through the Learning Launchpad, a joint venture between The Young Foundation and Edge. Future First builds networks of former students who return to their old schools to widen current pupils’ horizons, encourage their aspirations and educate them about their future options.
On the day of the Edge Annual Lecture we published a report written by Professor William Richardson and Dr Sue Sing at the University of Exeter. They investigated the impact of practical and vocational learning on the motivation, attitudes and achievement of 'academically able' young people.
It found that practical and applied learning at school has a strong and positive effect on the motivation and achievement of academically-able students. However, it also found that a great majority of these students gravitate to more abstract and analytical learning as they progress through the teenage years.
William and Sue focused on students identified as achieving average or above average levels of attainment in ‘academic’ subjects. In addition, the authors carried out an extensive literature review and examined the history of the secondary school curriculum and methods of assessment in England and Wales. Field work was carried out in 2010 and the report was completed in May 2011.
It is clear from this study that many young people do equally well in English, History, Engineering and Design. However, our education system steers them firmly in one direction rather than the other. The report explains that this deep-seated bias can be traced back directly to 19th-century concepts of merit and ability, which were based on abstract reasoning rather than the ability to design and make things or solve practical problems.
Technologies used to measure intelligence in schools are closely related to attainment tests in ‘core’ subjects and are used as a way of predicting likely success in traditional GCSE subjects. This has the effect of treating other forms of ability as second-best.
Similarly, achievement in traditional subjects is widely used when selecting candidates for high-status university places and jobs, while technical and vocational qualifications have largely failed to achieve the same currency.
Taken together, these findings raise a fundamental question: to what extent does the secondary school curriculum in England and Wales remain suited to contemporary conditions?
Jan Hodges is chief executive of Edge, the independent education foundation dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning