NCFE and the Campaign for Learning consider the future of post-18 education, in their recent volume of opinion pieces: 'The post-18 review of education and funding: a review of a lifetime' , Mick Fletcher rejects the cliché that we don’t value technical education, and suggests that too much focus on parity of esteem is damaging FE:
In terms of policy, good prescription can only come from a good description.
It sounds obvious but, in this respect, the Sainsbury report failed, ducking any attempt to be clear about what was meant by technical education and thereby condemning its proposals to sow confusion rather than clarity.
The review of post-18 education and training led by Philip Augar must, at all costs, avoid going the same way.
One sign of whether or not Augar’s panel has managed to get the analysis right will be whether they come out yet again with the tired old trope about ‘parity of esteem’.
It is not just that it lets the politicians off the hook - though it does, allowing them to frame the issue as one of other people’s prejudices rather than their own policy choices - it is that it flows directly from a flawed and incomplete analysis of the issue.
The confusion starts when one asks, ‘Parity of esteem for what?’
1. Parity of Esteem for Technical Education
There are many who will answer the question with reference to technical education, which they define as roughly equivalent to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). This group is simply wrong.
There is no evidence that the public, the education profession or the political class see science as of lower status than the arts. I’ve never heard physics, for example, described as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject compared with, say, geography or sociology - too hard, too boring, only for ‘boffins’ perhaps, but never lower status.
There may be a case for encouraging more people to undertake these subjects (though I suspect the shortage is somewhat exaggerated) but there is no evidence at all that it is status that drives individuals’ choices.
2. Parity of Esteem for Technician Education
There is another group who worry about the status of technician education and confuse matters by also referring to it as technical. This group is right that there is a status issue but wrong to think that educational marketing or political rhetoric can do anything about it.
A job as an accounting technician does not have the same status as a job as an accountant; an engineering technician is not the same as an engineer.
I deplore the fact that our society is quite so hierarchical but to pretend otherwise is simply dishonest. This rather fanciful approach to parity of esteem for technicians tends to lead policy in exactly the wrong direction.
In response to a perceived shortage of technicians, many advocate a focus on reducing the aspirations of some young people undertaking degrees by pretending a sub-degree qualification is in some way ‘just as good’.
In fact, there is a large potential market for sub-degree qualifications among those who are most certainly not put off by parity of esteem because they have already settled for something less.
Whatever it is that prevents those whose highest qualifications are at Level 2 or 3 from progressing to Level 4 or 5, it is not worries about parity of esteem.
3. Parity of Esteem for Technical Occupations
There is a third group who see the parity of esteem issue as about occupationally focussed education, many of whom add to the confusion by also trying to appropriate the words ‘technical education’ to describe the object of their concern. Again, they are simply wrong.
There is no lack of esteem for those training as barristers or surgeons; there is a wholly regrettable lack of regard for those preparing for work as a bricklayer or, even more so, as a hairdresser or care worker.
It is the class system, reinforced by a bit of misogyny that is at work here, not the nature of education.
A must do reform: Reinstate the 100% funding rate for 18 year old FE students
The government should end the anomalies in funding between the FE and HE sectors, starting with the cut in funding rates for 18 year olds on courses Level 3 and below - a policy finely targeted on the less advantaged. After all, 18 year olds are adults.
The government should also announce a review of 16- 18 education and funding.
Recommendation 1: Halt the constant destabilisation of the FE sector
The government should put an end to the constant and reckless destabilisation of the further education sector in England that would never be tolerated if visited on institutions that predominantly serve the better off.
It should halt the demeaning manipulation and micromanagement of FE by Whitehall while higher status individuals and the institutions that serve them enjoy autonomy and individual choice.
Recommendation 2: Reject the cliché that we don’t value technical education
The government should reject the easy cliché that in Britain we ‘don’t value technical or vocational education’.
Instead, it should focus on the way that education policy discriminates against provision for disadvantaged young people and adults and the institutions that serve them.
Recommendation 3: FE institutions should reject the ‘victimhood’ narrative
FE institutions, while campaigning for better resourcing, should also reject the narrative of victimhood embedded in the ‘parity of esteem’ debate.
In this, they could learn from the HE sector which, while shot through with status divisions, doesn’t fantasise about their removal but operates within their constraints.
London Metropolitan University, for example, doesn’t spend its time arguing for ‘parity of esteem’ with Oxbridge. It follows a different mission and does it very well.
Mick Fletcher, FE Consultant and Director of RCU