Whenever I hear the phrase “other people’s children”, I cringe, largely because what follows is a series of generalisations on a phase of education that is not universally understood. So, despite my apprehension before starting this review, I am happy to report it was unfounded.
What becomes clear even from the first chapter is that it is well-researched, ambitious in scope and detailed in its understanding. It addresses the question in its subtitle, but if you’re looking for a simple answer, you won’t find one here – for reasons this book explains well.
The first four chapters are dedicated to the bottom 50 per cent at particular ages: five, 11, 16 and post-16. These chapters make use of existing data to set the scene for the analysis of post-16 education that follows.
Fair warning, they are quite depressing reading. Lenon quotes Education Policy Institute research, which shows that “40 per cent of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the rest at age 16 can be attributed to the gaps that were seen at age five”. For those well versed in educational statistics this isn’t news, but it does set the scene well for the biggest chunk of the book, which examines including vocational, further and higher education opportunities.
At just a few pages under the 300 mark, discounting the extensive bibliography and index, the book is certainly meaty, although Lenon could have expanded further in most places. But this tells you something of the breadth of topics he covers and the complexity of the landscape. For example, a chapter on ‘Failure in vocational education’ covers 215 years (1800-2015), which could fill at least a book in its own right.
Lenon concludes that simplification is almost impossible
By setting the review of vocation and technical education in the statistical context of education below 16, Lenon avoids the trap of considering elements of the system in isolation. In a section entitled ‘The jungle of qualifications’, he recognises the complexity of the vocational system, but accurately asserts that “vocational qualifications are much more complex because they reflect the needs of a diverse labour market”. He also recognises the policy history that has sought to create this vast array of qualifications, and provides any number of conclusions that had me nodding my head in agreement. In the section on T-levels, for example, he notes “the reforms look radical but are little different from very similar reforms attempted by previous governments”.
Perhaps the most interesting perspective is his conclusion that simplification is “almost impossible”. He mentions the broad knowledge employers and the public have of GCSEs and A-levels – largely because the brands (although not necessarily the content) have remained stable. Lenon concludes that due to the many different courses and levels needed in technical education, “it cannot easily be reduced to simple structures”. Perhaps another warning for T-levels.
At this point, you may be thinking there must be a “but”, and there is, but it does not take away from a very good synthesis of the data, complexity and policy churn. The biggest weakness, for me, is that the analysis does not go far enough. There are some conclusions I agree with, but the data to back them up isn’t always there. Now, of course, if you cross-reference some of the many resources to which Lenon refers, you will no doubt get that data. However, although this book is rich with charts, there could have been more.
The biggest drawback is the lack of any concrete solutions for change, from a book that so consistently outlines the problems. When you reach the end, you’re still searching for an answer to the question: “So what do we do about it?”
For those new to further and/or technical education, I thoroughly recommend this book. And even for some of those better versed in the issues of the sector, it provides a comprehensive and illuminating summary. In fact, it should be required reading for civil servants before they start tinkering with policy – if not the whole book, then certainly at least the summary of recent trends at the end of chapter 5.