Monday, 8 February 2016

The inevitable consequence of 'education snobbery'

For the past few decades successive British governments and industry leaders have promoted the idea that the gold standard of education is one garnered at a university. These bastions of knowledge, it has been said, will produce the right type of employee which we need to grow UK PLC and prosper as a country, and individually.

In fact, I myself am a product of the ‘higher education for all’ mind-set. I grew up in a family where a university education was something to strive for; an aspiration for myself and my siblings. And I took a committed approach to pursuing a very pure academic pathway, taking on A Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. It led to me becoming the first in my family to take a degree, with Maths as my chosen subject. So I am, in essence, the epitome of the education policy to funnel as many people through the higher education pipeline as possible. And now, I intend to tell you just how wrong that philosophy is – not for every young learner, but for many.

There is no doubt that for some, a university degree is the way forward – it was the way forward for me – but, and this is the crucial bit, it should not be considered the best or indeed only way for a young person to get an education.

We’ve seen the results of this philosophy coming home to roost recently with the publication of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) ‘Employer Skills Survey 2015’. The report highlights what many in FE have known all along – that there has been a growing divide between the needs of employers, and the skills students enter the workforce with.

The survey of some 91,000 employers highlighted the fact that almost a quarter of job vacancies were left unfilled due to a shortage of skills. Many sectors which rely heavily on real tradecraft currently lack the new blood needed to keep them alive and flourishing.

Students on our Folkestone Campus learn some of the real tradecraft required in the local economy
In Kent – as across the UK – the construction sector is a key industry. Its contribution to the local economy is enormous, with a whopping 15 per cent of all jobs up for grabs in the county part of the sector. It’s well known already that there is a severe shortage in the number of skilled construction workers. The report once again highlighted that a lack of new blood is stifling it – and that, it could be argued, will have knock on consequences. If there’s not the manpower to build, construction inevitably takes longer. That could lead to new offices, homes and regeneration projects taking longer than they should, potentially stunting local economic growth prospects for the longer term.

It has, undoubtedly become a societal issue – our nation no longer appreciates the value of a high quality technical education. But this must change, and it is beginning to do so. There are clear indications that the Government, at least, understands the value of FE. Education secretary Nicky Morgan recently said we must ‘abandon education snobbery’, and allow colleges to promote themselves freely in schools. The principle is certainly something which I, and many in FE welcome; now we just need to see all of the the fine detail.
The Education secretary Nick Morgan has called for the abandonment of 'education snobbery' Pic: Policy Exchange
  The FE sector will need schools to work with colleges in much the same way as they work to promote taking a university degree – not as a second choice to an academic education, but as an equal to one. We need to wash away this idea that a further education is somehow a poor man’s version of higher education, or that the students who go on to attend college have been ‘failed’ by their teachers. Instead we must level the playing field and ensure colleges are thought of in the same positive way which universities are.

The comments coming from government on this matter have been positive, and are to be commended, as is the drive for a new generation of apprentices. But there is still inherent prejudice, with equally negative comments emerging from the man who heads up Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. In a speech Sir Michael deemed the whole FE Sector ‘inadequate at best’. In my view, this type of commentary is unhelpful at best, and downright disingenuous at worst. Many FE colleges provide excellent technical, vocational training which can lead students directly into the local workforce.

So why then does this prejudice continue? That’s the question which I would ask of Sir Michael, and all of those teachers who feel they have ‘failed’ if their pupils end up going to an FE college rather than taking the route to university. The only time they’ll truly fail their students is if they continue with this outdated, outmoded and frankly archaic belief that a one-size-fits-all academic education is best, and fail to give young people the opportunity for a technical, vocational one.

If we don’t solve this prejudice against the world of FE, then there’s little doubt that the emerging skills shortage will continue to grow.


  1. Interesting points made. Education snobbery abounds and there is a terrible heard mentality around the academic pathway. You make the point well that for some it is appropriate. For others a more vocational route into a trade or apprenticeship would be far better.

    Regrettably in the last 30 years society has seen this as the poorer route. In result many took the academic route, who in my view should not have. The academic route would seem to be subject to 'achievement inflation'. Twenty years ago you set yourself apart by being a graduate. Now you seem to need a Masters or a PhD to get noticed. That costs and too many people are getting to start a career with a massive debt, plus all the years it take to get there.

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