It is 9 months since Gordon Brown announced in the budget speech his plans to erradicate the education drop-out out rates for 16-19 year olds. Obviously, this involves not just academic but also vocational courses. At the time he said the main reason for this was to compete on a level playing field with the emergent economies of China and India.
On the 14th December the DOE produced a 10-year timetable to phase in 14 new vocational diplomas that aims at reducing drop out rates from 25% to 10%.
Ignoring the fact that this doesn't actually mirror Gordon Brown's actual statement in the budget my main worry is funding. Don't get me wrong I'm very much in support of the broad ideal, but I do have some worries.In the 100 page document produced by the DOE, there is no mention of the funding this is going to require to fully implement, which worries me greatly.
The subject marries two of my pet subjects quite effectively. The first is to do with the reduction in the number of vocational apprenticeships available and the second is children's engagement with the education system.
Apprenticeships were the standard way in which many young men would learn a manual skilled trade until relatively recently. My father in law did a 6 year engineering apprenticeship in Liverpool in the 60s. He became a very highly qualified heating engineer and is now an engineering project manager specialising in the implemetation and fitting of cooling clean air systems in operating theatres. He is now required to attend around 3 week long 'refresher courses' to relearn skills that are innate as a result of his apprenticeship. However, he has to have these certificates to hit all the health and safety qualifications for the job. It is estimated that the refresher courses cost his company around £11,000 once you have calculated course cost, admin cost and the cost of replacing him for the week. He believes that there would be no need to do these courses if long-term apprenticeships were still standard within professions. However, short termism means that apprenticeships are breaking down as the best are poached straight out of the system.
The disappearance of the apprenticeship has also had another more hidden but just as devastating social impact in my opinion. Stephen Biddulph in his book 'Raising Boys' suggests that one of the key factors in the breakdown of discipline in boys is the reduction in extra-familial role models. His argument is based on the fact that as the global economy progresses we have become increasingly geographically isolated from our extended family and the support that they provide, but also increased working hours mean that care-givers are out of the home for longer. The apprenticeship however, provided a very important 3rd party role model at a time when boys could traditionally come off the rails. This is now missing and I think is a major factor in some of the apathy that has crept in due to a missing work ethic and a lack of direction. Although I welcome more focus on vocational courses for the non-academically inclined I can't see vocational courses providing the same level of training and one to one mentoring that occurred in the traditional apprenticeship.
My second point addresses the funding of these proposals. We are currently one of only 3 countries in Europe that send out children to school at 4/5 years old. The vast majority send their children a year later. At 4/5 children (and boys in particular) have been proved to have not developed the ability to concentrate for the requisite amount of time for structured learning to really be of the gretaest benefit. It often means that Year 1 primary teachers are trying to manage the needs of individuals within their class who are suffering from this lack of attention and as a result are struggling to teach the whole class. In my opinion the most important function of Year 1 is to instil a love of learning as it is this that will sutain a child right through to graduation. If a teacher is not able to do that because they are trying to keep control of the class then you can lose children even before they've started. For this reason I'm a huge advocate of moving the starting age by 1 year, this would not only solve some of the engagement issues but also provide some of the budget required to support the DOE's new initiative.