Leave it a year? The minister thinks so

Politicians get a lot of stick for talking in platitudes or avoiding direct answers to difficult questions, so we should therefore be especially grateful when one strays off message and gives an honest reaction to a genuine issue. However, when Anne Milton, the Skills Minister, suggested to the education select committee recently that as a parent she’d be inclined to advise her children to ‘leave it a year’ before  considering a T level, the FE commentariat all piled in to condemn her. Apparently we’d rather the Minister had given out the usual boilerplate about a ‘once in a lifetime transformation of vocational education’ than told the truth.

The criticism was particularly unfair because what she said was common sense. Many parents and professionals would be likely to advise caution with a new, untried qualification. If I were an institutional leader I’d be cautious about committing too much resource to something that might not pay off. If I were a teacher I’d worry about what it would do to my career if T levels prove a blind alley. Anyone who’d experienced the 14-19 Diplomas or GNVQs or AVCEs would have ample reason to justify such caution.

I’d be cautious too about new sorts of institution. I (and I strongly suspect Anne Milton) would have waited a few years before deciding whether to send a child to a new UTC, or a studio school, or some of the more experimental sorts of free school: and we’d have been right. Too many of these schools have closed within a few years after failing to recruit or delivering unacceptable performance or both. This experience of course gives even more grounds for caution with the next experiment and sets up a vicious circle whereby the well-informed hold back and help undermine any prospect of success.

There are huge implications arising from the minister’s comments. The first, picked up by many commentators, is ethical. If these initiatives are not considered safe by the well informed, how can it be right to encourage ‘other people’s children’ to take the risk?  Should the government be promoting new courses or institutions if it cannot guarantee success?

Even more importantly, there are implications for the capacity of any government to introduce large scale change in education. It’s clearly possible to do damage - Michael Gove quickly killed off the 14-19 Diplomas for example, and successive governments have successfully undermined the capacity of local government to help manage education – but in neither case have they been able to create a valued substitute. The government needs to be much more cautious in what they seek to destroy and much more humble about their capacity to create.

There are specific implications for further education.  What credibility English vocational education has (and it’s actually a lot more than the Oxbridge educated in Westminster and Whitehall might think) derives from the reputations of established institutions – principally FE colleges and awarding bodies. People know and trust their local ‘tech’ yet governments persist in trying to promote competing organisations (UTCs and Institutes of Technology are only the latest in a long list) which muddies the brand and discourages the profession.  Our awarding bodies are well known and well trusted in the sectors in which they work and many have strong recognition at national and international level, yet once again ‘reforms’ are planned which diminish their role and deny their expertise. The continuing threat to Applied General qualifications is only the most egregious example.

We should therefore view Anne Milton’s comments in a different light. It’s a sign that someone well placed to shape vocational education policy senses that we might be going about it the wrong way.  We should get behind her and argue for a more cautious and collaborative approach to change.