Greening’s taking education back to the 80s

This time last year, education was going back to the 1950s with grammar schools as the idea in vogue.

This week, Justine Greening is taking us back to the 1980s, with her Youth Training Scheme for teachers (okay, apprenticeships), and back to the 2000s with her “social opportunity” areas.

Let’s time-travel a little: it’s summer 2004, Charles Clarke is education secretary, England’s biggest problem is that Marks & Spencer is having a hard time flogging vests, and Britain only won nine gold medals in the Olympics.

In response to the death of a young girl called Victoria Climbie, the country has had a crisis of conscience about children’s wellbeing and created a new policy called “Every Child Matters”, compelling local organisations to work together to help make children safe, healthy and happy. New laws are on the way which will require local authorities to write “children and young people’s plans” showing how key local groups will deliver great outcomes for all young people in the area.

If you’ve never seen one of these plans, you no longer need to dig into a dusty archive. Justine Greening’s brochures, released this week for six of her social opportunity areas, will do just fine: they look almost exactly the same. There’s the annoying corporate front, a whizzy picture of the local area, and a foreword by someone important, though Greening is in these ones; local plans used to feature councillors or a pushy mayor.

Crucially there’s a plan, with some money behind it, for new services or to target or link together existing services in new ways.

So far, so benign. Should people in a local area work together for the good of their pupils? Sure! We’ve all been saying this all along.

No one sensible can believe that all local organisations working together for the good of children is a bad thing?

The question that Greening needs to address is why there has been such a big hole in place of these services over the past seven years since Michael Gove, practically overnight, swept away all that progress made back in 2004.

The second question is this: When is the rest of the country going to make such plans?

I understand that social opportunity areas have particular difficulties. But no one sensible can believe that all local organisations working together for the good of children is a bad thing? And if the government answer is “autonomy” then I wonder why they feel they have the right to impinge on the 12 areas they have landed in?

They can’t justify it purely on the grounds of outcomes: other parts of the country are far worse. As Mike Parker of Schools North East pointed out at an event, there isn’t a single opportunity area in the north-east of England even though it the worst secondary outcomes.

Still, that’s enough of the 2000s for now. Onwards to the 80s!

Unfortunately, we have landed in the 1981 riots. New stop-and-search laws have caused unrest across the country, with riots occurring in Leeds, London, Birmingham and Liverpool. In response, the government has decided the youth need sorting out.

A policy first mooted by Norman Tebbitt in 1980 for on-the-job training for older teens was implemented. Enter the much-maligned YTS.

The Youth Training Scheme – to give its full title – was an apprenticeship-style programme for all 16- to 18-year-olds. The government guaranteed the cost of training, delivered for at least 13 weeks per year away from the job, and trainees were given an allowance of £35 per week, equivalent to around £115 in 2016.

From the start unions worried about the low wages and lack of rights for apprentices. They were right. By 1995 the scheme was in a mess; six in 10 left halfway through the programme. Of those who stayed, half were fired when they received their final qualifications, mostly so they could be replaced by another trainee.

And yet today we find ourselves faced with a new form of YTS – the apprenticeship. This time the scourge it will solve is Brexit, and though unions are again worried about wages and a lack of rights, we are apparently to believe that all will be okay this time.

In fact, let’s take one final whizz at the time-travel. Let’s imagine it’s 2027. Apprenticeships have matured. Brexit has happened. Marks and Spencer is probably still having a hard time flogging vests. But what does the world of schools look like?

I’ll leave that for your imagination to decide.

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  1. The 1980s saw the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI). Shedloads of government dosh were available to schools that met the TVEI curriculum criteria. Far from encouraging vocational courses like GNVQ and BTECs in KS4, the opposite was required.

    Schools had to provide a ‘Broad and Balanced’ non gender differentiated curriculum for all students, in which specifically vocational courses were banned. The result was a trend towards a large common core curriculum with a minimum of ‘option’ subject choice in KS4. All students had to study English, maths, science, modern language, humanities, and ‘design’ subject. This left two or at most three ‘option subjects’. Schools were also judged on achieving gender balanced classes across the curriculum. The overriding curriculum principle was that no student would be allowed to narrow their post-16 progression options through specialisation at KS4.

    In my view TVEI was a great success. In the schools in which I served, the proportions of girls taking maths, physics and chemistry A levels substantially increased and student and staff morale were high, despite the chronic underfunding of school building maintenance leading to classrooms with buckets catching the drips from leaky roofs.

    In my book ‘Learning Matters‘ I argue for a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils up to at least the age of 16. This is because if curiosity is the driver of learning then the full spectrum of possible exploration should be available as a resource to all pupils.

    I also believe in ‘plastic intelligence’. This implies a dynamic interaction between perception and the mind, leading to the enhancement of general cognitive abilities. When a pupil gets absorbed and mentally challenged in (for example) a historical study topic, then she also gets better at maths and science, and vice-versa. This is a powerful argument for maintaining subject breadth in the school curriculum for as long as possible and certainly at least up to the age of 16.

    Eclecticism as a quality was greatly valued and apparent in the lives of our great Victorians in diverse fields of human endeavour. It is in need of restoration in our schools.

    The knowledge gained from an eclectic education is important at all ability and attainment levels. Not only do we benefit from well-educated employees and professionals at all levels but even more so from well-educated mothers and fathers.

    The problem lies in the populist suggestion that school students should be divided into academic/non-academic streams at 14. This is to be a ‘Tech Bacc’ route to give ‘less academically able pupils a meaningful qualification’. This bad policy aim was repeated by Labour leader Ed Milliband’ speech at the 2014 Labour Party Conference.

    See my article here