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Successful reform of tertiary education means looking hard at secondary too

  • 15 July 2020
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This blog was kindly contributed to HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook, who is a HEPI Trustee, Chair of Council at the Dyson Institute, Chair of Trustees of the Access Project, a Council member at the Open University and a non-exec Director at the Student Loans Company. She can be found on Twitter at @MaryCurnockCook.

Gavin Williamson probably lost most higher education folks when he said, ‘we must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.’ Many would agree that this is certainly one purpose of education, but the academy embraces loftier aims for higher education including the expansion of the mind and imagination, civic engagement, humanity and the appetite for more, even continuous, learning thereafter.

Nevertheless, some of those aims would be difficult to realise without the security of a good and meaningful job, so he has a point. Echoing sentiment from the Augar report, the Secretary of State’s speech to the Social Market Foundation went on to make a powerful case for improving Further Education for the ‘forgotten 50%’. He emphasised the precipitous decline in Foundation Degrees, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNCs & HNDs), part-time adult education and an overall drop of 1 million adult learners in further education. And many will rightly welcome his pledges to invest in rebuilding the FE sector after decades of decline and chronic underfunding.

Less welcome in the higher education sector is the clear signal that more people could profitably access further education instead of higher education, also a theme in Michelle Donelan’s recent speech. This departs somewhat from supporting the forgotten 50%, as it more apparently splits the not-forgotten 50% of young people who do access higher education between further education and higher education and higher education.

Supporting the 50% of young people who do not progress to higher education requires a little more thought to the rungs in the ladder below. Government policy currently requires all young people to pursue a largely academic curriculum up to the age of 16. Those 16-year-olds who do not choose to use their collection of academic GCSEs to progress to academic A-Levels, have a range of vocational, technical and applied choices – BTECs (often single subject Diplomas), T-Levels, also single domain, or apprenticeships requiring successful application for a job role in a selected industry or sector. Michelle Donelan asserts that ‘true social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path’, but many youngsters remain hazy about that ‘desired destination’ at age 16 and 18, and often long beyond. A crude sorting of young people into destinations before they have the experience and knowledge to make good choices will not help level up skills in the UK. And it is difficult to create successful career progression in skills-related streams with no foundations to build on. Without meaningful vocational and technical options at Level 2, making the choice away from the academic stream for 16+ education will always seem like the second-class option, as has been its reputation to date. And without broader curriculum options at Level 3, young people are forever confined to the decision they made (or that were made for them) at the tender age of 16.

So while I support the government’s aims to overhaul tertiary education options I fear their current approach will further divide society, lethally levelling up the already privileged middle-classes while sorting off the less well off, lower-attaining rest into what will forever seem like poorer options in lesser occupations. If levelling up is the aim, then we need to create broader and meaningful technical and skills pathways for all students, not just for those that do less well at academic GCSEs.

This summer’s abandonment of GCSEs has created new calls from some for their permanent abandonment; others recognise that those who will face their Level 3 exams without having taken any public, externally examined assessments since their SATs might be in for a shock. But the Corona system-shock could also be the catalyst for rethinking not just tertiary education but also secondary education. A broader technical and skills offer alongside core academic subjects at Level 2 would be welcomed by many students as would a broader curriculum at Level 3. If everyone pursued a baccalaureate style education to age 18 containing a mix of skills and academic study, it would be easier for all students to make choices about their tertiary education, including chosen technical and skills routes as a worthwhile alternative (or pathway to) to university.

The government’s ambition to skill-up to meet the requirements of the digital age will be difficult to realise unless those skills are on the curriculum from an earlier age so that young people can start to build on their aptitudes throughout their education instead of doing so only after having failed the gold standard academic route. Reforming tertiary education without reforming secondary education in parallel might be like trying to run before you can walk.


  1. Richard Hutchins says:

    Is the government revising its thinking on University Technical Colleges (UTCs)? They fit neatly into the vision for a “Germanic” technical education route.

  2. Beverley Paddey says:

    We are extremely good at inventing new regimes without collectively examining what actually works. Having extensively studied all the prevailing EU schemes of academic and vocational education it still seems to me that we are as far apart as ever from learning from each other. My feelings are that we all face the same challenges but we tackle them in different ways. I have often been reminded by the EU that my thoughts around collective learning is not innovative – just a dumb blonde obviously! Ps BTEC is not a type of qualification
    just a brand name…

  3. albert wright says:

    ” If everyone pursued a baccalaureate style education to age 18 containing a mix of skills and academic study, it would be easier for all students to make choices about their tertiary education, including chosen technical and skills routes as a worthwhile alternative (or pathway to) to university.”

    This is so important. The academic bias of education from age 6 to 16 prevents those individuals who excel in developing skills from reaching their potential.

    Most teachers have been through University.

    Decades ago, the 3 Rs were not Reading Writing and Arithmetic but Reading Writing and Wroughting.

    The curriculum at late primary and secondary stages needs to include more art and more practical skills development such as cooking, gardening, building and maintenance, sport, selling, music, personal grooming.

    Early introduction of “non academic job style ” activities will allow those young people who have the right aptitudes and interest to do things at which they can excel and grow inconfidence.

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