rethinking education, economy and society

August 27, 2014

Tristram Hunt and ‘Two Nation’ Labour.

Filed under: Labour's policies — sitemananger @ 8:22 am
Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt

untitled1Vocational education is supposed to improve work and employment skills, but many of the vocational courses developed in schools and colleges after the collapse of industrial apprenticeships in the 1970s have not offered real opportunities for young people in the labour market. Instead, a succession of vocational courses and qualifications were introduced, lasted a few years and were then discarded in favour of new ones.

Some of these were high profile youth training schemes with new qualifications, such as the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) that claimed parity of esteem with A-levels. Some were expensive white elephants like the specialist diplomas championed by New Labour. The most durable were the BTEC awards. They all aimed to provide new types of ‘soft skills’ needed across the growing service sector.

Even though vocational qualifications offered at Advanced level provided opportunities to enter higher education, academic qualifications continued to represent ‘powerful knowledge’ in terms of the jobs market and access to more prestigious universities. Schools and colleges in the 1990s were encouraged by Lord Dearing’s pathways approach to his review of the National Curriculum to use vocational qualifications for ‘non-academic’ students. The more student-friendly pedagogy and less hierarchical classroom relationships involved in these new qualifications were said to reflect the modern workplace but also provided ways for teachers and lecturers to gentle these students along a low status route.

However, the repackaging of vocational qualifications as ‘applied’ learning – part of New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals – could not widen the student base nor gather greater employer support. As a result, many teachers and educationalists  continued to be suspicious of the pathways approach, seeing it as reflecting the divisions of the 1944 Act and contradicting the comprehensive principle of an inclusive and broadly balanced curriculum. More recently, the standing of vocational qualifications was reduced further as some schools entered entire cohorts for vocational ‘equivalents’ to improve their standing in GCSE league tables.

On coming to office, Michael Gove commissioned Professor Alison Wolf to review vocational learning. Wolf argued that students put on vocational pathways at 14 were ‘short-changed’ in the labour market because of the poor quality and low value of these courses. In response, Gove streamlined the number of vocational courses available at 14 and 16, but also demanded more ‘rigour’. By this he meant that to qualify as one of the eight subjects on which new school league tables would be formulated, a vocational qualification had to follow certain criteria, could not count as more than one GCSE and had to have more external assessment.

But Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach was rejected by Lord Baker, the creator of City Technology Colleges in the 1980s. Baker argued for a continuation of the Dearing approach and reintroduced University Technology Colleges to provide a vocational/technical specialism sometimes linked to a particular company or university.  

Baker’s approach has been adopted by Labour. The Adonis Review has called for 100 UTCs to be established  by  2020  (, while Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, used his  speech to the Microsoft Foundation  to attack the ‘backwardness’ of Gove’s deluded grammar schools for all approach. He also reaffirmed the Party’s commitment to the Tech-Bacc, agreeing with Lord Baker that the main problem with the 1944 Act was the underdevelopment of technical schools which put the UK at a disadvantage in ‘the global skills race’ (

Hunt’s ‘Two Nation Labour’ approach also proposes the rebranding of further education colleges as ‘Institutes of Technical Education’ for those school leavers who have failed on the academic route  and Labour has already announced new Technical Degrees ( involving part-time/ day release study – and as with the current two-year foundation degrees likely to be be delivered through the Further Education sector.

Labour’s desire to create a stronger ‘technician level’ route into employment is also reflected in its policies for reforming apprenticeships, where the Adonis Review correctly identifies many of their shortcomings. Firstly, apprenticeships are invariably low-level with minimal training, still predominantly for adults and mainly in low-paid service sectors like health and social care; customer service; and hospitality & catering. The Review also correctly calls for the public, rather than the private sector to play a leading role in apprenticeship creation.

Adonis, like Lord Baker, is an admirer of the success of German technical education and apprenticeships and his Review emphasises the need for a more general industrial strategy. But given the continued slide to a low-wage,  economy with ‘lousy’ not ‘lovely’ jobs (,  the sort of measures proposed are far too little, too late and well short of those implemented in post-war Germany! Adonis and Labour also overestimate the extent to which the UK’s industrial and technological demise can be arrested by the creation of ‘high quality’ vocational education and training. This would need to be linked to a massive increase of (public) investment and rigorous economic planning, hardly compatible with a UK style free market and ‘flexible’ economy.

In any case, the huge rise in the number of graduates means that they, rather than school leavers or apprentices, increasingly fill ‘non-graduate’ jobs. Surveys report between a third to half of new graduates being pushed down into jobs they are over-qualified for. Half a million applicants to higher education this year (a record number) shows that, despite debts for exorbitant fees to pay more for less at overcrowded universities, young people realise that a degree offers their best chance of the secure the  professional employment they crave.

As a result, rather than trying to rebuild a vocational route, it would be better to provide a good general education for everybody with a school-leaving certificate at 18 providing entitlement to different types of learning, including learning about work as well as to work, plus major reforms to the delivery and assessment of ‘academic’ education to make it more relevant and accessible to all.



August 22, 2014

Book Review: The People, The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

Filed under: Books — sitemananger @ 6:32 am


Patrick Ainley

When Eric Hobsbawm asked in 1978 whether the forward march of labour had halted, he was calling attention to a possible political reversal, not bidding Farewell to the Working Class as Andre Gorz did two years later. More recently, Guy Standing in 2011 proposed the birth of The Precariat, a ‘dangerous new class’ growing alongside the dwindling proletariat, while in the same year Owen Jones suggested that the entire English working class had been turned into Chavs (2011) – read more at  (


August 19, 2014

The high growth – low wage puzzle.

Filed under: Economy — sitemananger @ 8:51 pm

The fact that the relatively high overall growth of the UK economy has not led to a corresponding increase in wages – the  latest ONS figures now showing real wages are falling  ( – has perplexed policy makers and, for the moment at least, put a brake on an interest rate hike. Wages excluding bonuses between April and June 2014 are barely 0.6% higher than a year ago ( This compares to a pre-downturn average of 2.5%. Whereas the economy has now returned to its previous level of output, regular pay has fallen 5.25% during the last four years.

Changes in wages often ‘lag’ behind other changes in the economy but there’s little sign of any catch up, with the Bank of England upgrading growth predictions but now downgrading its prediction for wage growth ( despite estimating that the level of spare capacity in the economy could be as little as 1%.  Wage increases are invariably linked to increases in productivity (output per worker) but UK productivity still remains over 15%, below both its pre-recession level as well as below that of other countries. It’s also the case that if the increase in population is taken into account and a ‘GNP per capita’ measurement is used then the economy isn’t really growing at all.

Though more people are working, the additional labour has not always been drawn from the dole queue. This also helps to explain why there’s not been the ‘trade off’ between falls in unemployment and rising wages which economic theory suggests there should be. The continued importance of part-time work, (one in four new jobs are in this category and 36% of all workers now report they are ‘part-time’), particularly in a ‘24/7’ service sector with its flexible and weekend shifts, has meant it’s easier for people who might previously have left the labour force because of family and other responsibilities, to find employment. At the same time there are also well over a million part-time workers who want to work more hours.

There’s clear evidence that people are working beyond retirement as there are more than a million workers over 65. Also, almost half of the new jobs have been ‘self-employed’ – with many of the self-employed earn up to 40% less than if they were ‘employees’ ( In fact, if the earnings of all self-employed people were included in pay data, wage levels would be shown to have fallen further (

But it’s also the nature of the jobs that are being created which explains low levels of wages and low productivity instead of wages going up with productivity. According to the ONS bulletin, of the 1.1 million increase in jobs in the year to March 2014, only 189,000 have been in the ‘professional, scientific and technical’ high wage and high productivity category.  So most of this summer’s 300,000 university graduates will not get one of the 56,000 current vacancies in this sort of work but will end up being ‘over-qualified’ for the work they do, draining productivity increases still further.  For example, a  high number of low-paid women are working significantly below their skill or qualification level with over a fifth of those polled educated to degree level.. more than one in five women earning less than £7.44 per hour were educated to degree level (

In comparison, low paid and low productive industries (because they are so labour intensive) have continued to expand.   Thus ‘accommodation and food services’ generated 128,000 extra jobs, likewise  ‘human health and social work’ (also one of the lowest paid) generated 89,000. Meanwhile, there are only 44,000 new manufacturing jobs – a sector where any productivity increases would be most noticeable.

With 1 in 5 workers earning less than the ‘living wage’ and new data showing that CEOs receive up to 143 times the pay  of those they employ  ( it’s inequality rather than growth that’s the main issue in the economy.


August 15, 2014

A-level of uncertainty

Filed under: A-levels and the Pre-U — sitemananger @ 8:01 am

Another year of university ‘clearing’ swings into gear; but it now takes a very different form compared to when originauntitledlly established to help those who had missed out on their grades having a second opportunity to gain a place elsewhere. Despite tuition fee hikes and Coalition members continuing  to ‘talk up’  failing apprenticeships as an alternative to university,  there’s no evidence that students are shunning Higher Education – disadvantaged young people even less so (   

With universities now able to recruit an unlimited number of students with ABB grades and with those who achieve higher grades  than are expected able to ‘trade up’ the Financial Times (09/08/14) likened the process to a “football transfer window” as leading universities use everything from free laptops to cash incentives to lure away those who’ve already been accepted elsewhere ( As the FT indicates, it’s clear that more institutions have been using the Oxbridge style ‘unconditional offer’ to make sure that they are not left empty handed.

This is only half of the story however. If an additional 30,000 places have been funded to allow the recruitment of high performers, this year’s A-level results mean that competition for students will be intensified further and universities are likely to have to admit many who have failed to gain the grades required in their original offer. Despite a 0.6% increase in the new A*grade (as teachers found out what was required to reach it), the percentage of A and B grades are down slightly as is the overall pass rate. A fall in the number of 18 year olds also reduces the size of the pool the universities are fishing in.

Changes to examinations by Michael Gove and supported by new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, are also affecting the supply of applicants. The ending of the January sitting limits retake opportunities and reductions in coursework are said to favour boys.  Ofqual has been instructed to apply a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach, designed to limit ‘grade inflation’ while the proportion of entries for the more traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects favoured by Russell universities have also increased.

Because of other changes to individual subjects, Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey had already warned that public exam results could be ‘particularly volatile’ this year; but in future the general trend can only  be downwards because more fundamental changes to A-levels kick in from 2015  ( and

In the post-crash economy however, the increase in both the number of university places available and the number of ‘first choice’ acceptances will not be ‘an important source of social mobility’, as Universities Minister Greg Clark claims. Instead, the number of young people finding themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’ will continue to grow as Office for National Statistics figures  just released show continued falls in levels of pay  and the number of new  jobs being created in low skill/ low paid sectors vastly outnumbering  better paid/ higher skilled opportunities. Around a million jobs may have been created in the last 12 months but less than 1 in 5 can be classified as ‘professional, scientific or technical’.  (  This can only strengthen arguments that changes to the education system, in the interests of young people rather than market forces, must be part of more general changes to the labour market and economy if they are to be effective.


July 30, 2014

David Willetts last desperate proposals

Filed under: Higher Ed — sitemananger @ 7:14 am

-David-Willetts--007Patrick Ainley

David Willetts jumped before he was pushed by resigning from the Cabinet along with Michael Gove who was dismissed in Cameron’s cosmetic reshuffle. They won’t be back – Willetts hopes for a job in Europe while Gove may be editing the Daily Mail after May.

Together Willetts and Gove attempted a Great Reversal in English education. Gove by inflicting a grammar school curriculum on all schools so that fewer would be selected for higher education and Willetts by introducing exorbitant student fees that he thought would deter all but a few from applying to university and thus reduce government costs. Instead of less though, more school leavers applied in hopes of a secure job on graduation; especially when, as Martin Allen has shown, most of the ‘apprenticeships’ the Coalition promised did not provide an alternative route to this goal. Willetts, as much more of a free-market fundamentalist than Gove, accepted the Will of the Market and promised instead to sell the growing mountain of student debt owed by nearly half of all young people.

Despite his failure to do this, Willetts – unlike Gove – is deferred to by many academics and most journalists as a ‘two brains’ genius. But he has lost what Andrew McGettigan called his Great University Gamble, adding £191 billion in student loans to government debt. BIS estimate only a third of this will be repaid by 2046, after which unpaid loans will be written off. Consequently, the Treasury have repeatedly tried to get rid of Willetts but he promised he would sell the debt on – only no one wanted to buy. His boss at BIS Vince Cable admitted as much as soon as Willetts was reshuffled.

Now Willetts has popped up to defend himself, claiming on BBC’s Newsnight (28/7) to have been working on a scheme to sell the debt to the universities themselves. This will not go down well with the private colleges and ‘universities’ he’s been so keen to stimulate but some of the richer unis (guess which?) might be interested as they see a profit in this, particularly as Willetts is suggesting that this new reform will tie student subject choice more closely to job prospects on graduation. But however ‘employable’ unis claim to make their graduates, this aspect of student as consumer is narrowing student choice and perverting relations between students and staff because, basically, UNIVERSITIES HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE GRADUATE JOBS MARKET.

So the proposal will lose the support of many academics who have been complicit in Willetts’ fee hike on which their own funding now depends (except for the still Higher Education Funding Council-funded Science Technology Engineering and Maths STEM subjects). With clearing upon us, nearly all the unis are in cut-throat competition to cram in students who are paying much more for less. In fact, all but Oxbridge and LSE went into clearing last year for at least one of their subjects. And these are amongst the few unis who will benefit from taking on their own graduates’ debts since they might make a profit from the higher paying jobs some of them get. So much so, they could charge even higher fees!

Yet, as Newsnight’s Chris Cook points out, under this regime, ‘Even a strong university like Leeds would go from having debt equivalent to about 38% of its current annual income to well over 100% within three years.’ He also adds that there would be even stronger incentives to grade inflation since ‘Unemployment among people with first-class degrees just out of universities was 5% in 2012/13, as opposed to 7.2% for people with upper-seconds.’

And what of unis where many students are unemployed or in low-paid jobs after graduation? Would government just let them go to the wall, achieving Willetts-Gove’s aim of reducing the numbers in higher education? And is Labour’s policy still to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 and/or will they reinvent Foundation degrees in the form of ‘technical degrees’ leading on from a 14+ ‘technical route’ in schools, like Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges, going back to bi- or tripartite schooling in place of Gove’s delusions in ‘grammar schools for all’?

Certainly, if the Tories get back in the cap of £9,000 as the top fee allowed will be removed but meanwhile this last desperate proposal won’t get David Willetts out of the hole he  dug for himself.


 Allen, M. (2014) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st century. London: radicaled. (Free download from this site.)

 Allen, M. and Ainley, P. (2013) The Great Reversal, Young People, Education and Employment in a Declining Economy.   

 McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble, Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Verso.


July 16, 2014

The piper(s) may have gone, but the tune remains the same?

Filed under: Coalition education policies — sitemananger @ 12:41 pm

untitleddavid_willettsAs another difficult academic year draws to a close, it goes without saying that Michael Gove’s departure will be greeted euphorically by teachers and campaigners, particularly those who have focussed almost entirely on the ex-Secretary of State’s combative style, abrasive manner and other personal inadequacies.

He may continue play a key role ‘at the heart of government’ ( and in maintaining  Tory Party discipline,  (somewhat ironic considering his own the recent spat with Home Secretary May) but Gove was becoming a liability for Cameron who has sought to restrict his public profile over recent weeks.  Also, with Gove at the helm, there’s been little chance of the long running teachers’ pay dispute being resolved. Strike action by teachers is not the cause of his departure,  but it’s  certainly been a contributory factor.

But it has to be said that one of Gove’s main projects  – making  exams more difficult pass,  trying to lower  aspirations and create new divisions between young people and between schools ( is now bedded in and timed to unravel over the coming months; also across any changes in government. As with Free Schools, Labour may repackage the proposals as a series of baccalaureates, but it won’t undo the detailed changes currently being implemented by examination boards, So in this respect Gove can be effectively moved, high profile Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss  promoted out of the Department for Education and a complete outsider (who is by all accounts pro-Gove) installed to oversee a holding operation until the election, combining her post as Education Secretary with a responsibility for Women (!)

If Gove’s legacies are to be seriously challenged and as the election approaches, a huge amount of work is required in developing an alternative education policy that goes beyond calling for teachers’ professional autonomy to be restored in the classroom and for LEAs to be rehabilitated. This means building links between teacher organisations, parent campaigners and Labour Party dissidents, but also across the different sectors of education.  

Compared with Gove, the resignation (or dismissal?) of Universities Minister David Willetts has received little attention. Attempting to ‘price out’ many potential students from  higher education, Willetts has been responsible for the introduction of a fees and loans system which rather than increasing opportunities has led to a situation where more than half of new graduates will end up in work inappropriate to their qualifications, (  with billions of loan debt likely never to be repaid as a result of poor job prospects and low pay (   Meanwhile, despite the efforts of (now also departed) Skills Minister Mathew Hancock to talk up their success, apprenticeships have not become serious alternatives to HE (

Standing up for education also means standing up for young people who, according to Institute of Fiscal Studies research (  have suffered far more than anybody else as a result of the recession.  


July 14, 2014

Labour’s new Technical degrees

Filed under: Higher Ed — sitemananger @ 8:06 am


Many of Labour’s education policy announcements are either clouded by vagueness or appear poorly thought through.  No more so than with the recent proposals for Technical Degrees. ( For example, David Miliband is accused by Professor Alison Wolf of both undermining the importance of Higher Level Apprenticeships and creating confusion over the status of the existing Foundation Degrees; while Coalition Skills Minister Mathew Hancock also claimed that Miliband was in a ‘bit of a muddle’ (  While there may well be confusion over the specifics of particular reforms however, more significant are the wider illusions on which the policy announcements are based.

Firstly, Labour sees the major divide being between the ‘graduates’ and the ‘forgotten 50%’. Though being re-established as One Nation Labour, these ideas are a continuation of the ideas of New Labour where the aim was to get as many people into higher education as possible so as to increase social mobility.  But the increase in the number of graduates under New Labour  only created a situation where more were ‘overqualified and underemployed’ –one survey now suggesting that just 53% of university leavers will gain ‘graduate jobs’ in the next five years.  ( Emphasising a graduate /non-graduate divide also ignores the different labour market returns from different sorts of degrees awarded by different sorts of institutions.

Secondly,  Labour cites a ‘skills crisis’ as the justification for training more technician level workers, but projects like the high speed rail line or  the growth (often overestimated) of employment in new ICT based ‘cutting edge’ industries are not going to compensate for the long term decline in manufacturing employment (already less than 12% of total employment even if manufacturing output remains the same as 25 years ago) or ‘the ‘hollowing out’ of intermediate level employment ( .  As is the case with Advanced Level Apprenticeships, rather than having to sponsor existing employees through Technical Degrees as Miliband proposes; the glut of graduates means employers can draw upon those already qualified.

Once again, Labour is only  proposing superficial reforms to the ‘supply side ’ of the labour market rather than confronting the major inadequacies that young people face in trying to enter employment and which requires linking its education and training  policies  to a more general industrial strategy and an alternative economic plan. 

July 10, 2014

‘Dead end’ apprenticeships are failing to help young people find lasting work

Filed under: apprenticeships — sitemananger @ 10:43 am

news          10/7/14

Apprenticeships are not improving young peoples’ skills enough to provide a real alternative to university,   according to new research

July 9, 2014

More Nonsense on Apprenticeships.

Filed under: Uncategorized — sitemananger @ 7:41 am

front_page_001Several national newspapers reported Skills Minister Matthew Hancock’s latest attempt to talk up the Coalition’s faltering apprenticeship programme ( Newspapers also carried statistics showing an 18% in the number of 16 and 17 year olds signing up for apprenticeships –with 50 000 youngsters now taking this route, yet these figures take on a rather different significant when they are compared against the number of 16-17 staying on in full-time education, some 1.2 million and representing over 85% of the cohort.

Hancock also pointed to a 40% increase in the number of under-25 year olds on Advanced level apprenticeships (work-based alternatives to A-level) but other government figures show only 22,100 starts by under-19 year olds for the six months from August 2013 with another 28 000 by those 19-25. Compared with the 300 000 plus A-level candidates and the 310 000 acceptances of university places by school leavers for September 2013, these numbers are extremely small and show that whatever Hancock and Coalition colleagues like to tell us; apprenticeships do not represent a serious alternative to university and that most young people entering sixth-form will in the absence of real apprenticeship opportunities (applicants outnumber vacancies by well over 10 to 1) continue to sign up for A-level courses if they can.

Download   Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the Start of the 21st Century.

July 3, 2014

Back to school for some of the NEETS: but for what sort of learning?

Filed under: YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT — sitemananger @ 7:34 am

070228_bored_students_02New Government figures ( show the number of 16-18 year old NEETS at the lowest level for 20 years with a drop of a fifth over the last year. 81% of the age group were in education or work based training at the end of 2013 (70% in full-time school or college). The reduction in NEETS coincides with the raising of the ‘participation rate’ rather than reflecting an increase in the number working –ONS  statistics for Feb to April 2014 showed only 85 000 of the quarter of a million 16 and 17 year olds who have left full-time education have found work. Apprenticeship participation also continues to be very low,– figures (  showing only 71 000 starts by those under 19 and less than 6% of 16-18 year olds in ‘work-based’ learning. In fact , even before the raising of the participation age, as the Wolf Report recognised, most 16-17 year olds are as likely to have been ‘pushed’ back into full-time education because of lack of alternatives, rather than ‘pulled’ back by the prospect of increased opportunities for social mobility.

With increases in staying-on, there will continue to be debate about the nature of the 16-18 ‘sixth form’ curriculum with Labour being the strongest advocate of a new vocational/technical pathway (A Tech-Bacc) for the 50% of young people who don’t go to university. Yet it’s extremely unlikely that following a vocational course will increase the chances of employability. Few employers are familiar with vocational qualifications, those who may be, are still likely to favour candidates with A-levels –while those young people who can, continue to enrol for academic courses. Many of the ‘middle’ or ‘technician level’ jobs which these qualifications (and apprenticeships for that matter) are said to lead to, are now disappearing –or are being done by ‘overqualified’ graduates, while according to surveys, most employers report that they are generally happy with the skills of school and college leavers and that the majority are ‘ready for work’ ( The problem is that so few seek to recruit them!

Following Wolf’s advice that they provide low labour market returns, Michel Gove has pruned the number  of vocational qualifications that are available, demanded more ‘rigorous’ content and that they take on some of the characteristics of academic learning.  Here, he is at odds with Lord Baker who continues to open more University Technical Colleges (UTCs) providing vocational specialisation at 14 (

But if ‘vocational pathways’ do not provide opportunities this does not mean we should see the current academic qualifications as the way forward. In an increasingly uncertain world, all 16-18 year olds need a good general education that includes academic, vocational, practical and community based learning; but which also uses e-learning to the full and develops research skills.

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