Skills will be the focus for education reformers in the coming years

May 30, 2018

Since his appointment, the education policy world has waited and wondered what our new Secretary of State intended to do with the office. Hinds is, in the positive opinion of one seasoned watcher of Westminster “a proper politician”—able to project genuine warmth and interest to his constituents and stakeholders, but also savvy enough to know when to stay silent and to think carefully about his next move.

It is already clear, from his well-received performances at the headteacher trade union conferences, that he is interested in teacher recruitment and retention—wise, given that if our classrooms start coming up empty of responsible adults, no other work he does is likely to save him from the wrath of parents. However, the recent announcement of a money to help grammar schools to expand brought anger and confusion from a profession that has not remotely reconciled itself to the ongoing popularity of selective schooling in some parts of the country.

But the grammar school announcement was an attempt to deal swiftly and cleanly with a legacy of the 2017 general election manifesto that few left in government still wish to pursue but which a number of backbench MPs and interest groups were still keen to see progress. Hinds’ predecessor, Justine Greening, did not prioritise this, but Hinds resolved to deal with the issue and move on – arguably he acted decisively, producing a classic compromise—no one is very happy with it, but likewise, no one seems sufficiently enraged by it to cause much consternation in the DfE.

Over the weekend, however, Hinds made his first firm move on an issue that government cannot ignore: T-Levels. These technical qualifications, designed to carry the same weight as a qualification as an A-level—whose name they shrewdly mimic—are the centrepiece of the DfE’s response to England’s long-term and pernicious failure to develop an education pathway directly and usefully related to the needs of its economy. Since the early 1990s, there has been a massive expansion in young people pursuing further and tertiary education, but this “massification” of higher ed has been along the model of the research-intensive universities of the Russell Group such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and other world-leaders. This largely residential experience for, generally, 18-21 year olds has become the default option for any young person (or at least the one their teachers tell them ought to be the default). At the same time, such a route has become increasingly expensive for that age group—although the fees system as it exists now is better thought of as a tax obligation than a debt—but too often entirely divorced from the necessities of the labour market.

Given that fees have gone up precisely because a university education is supposed to lead to better-paying job, this ruction between qualifications and career options is working less and less well for young people, but is also clearly not working for many employers. For years, the DfE has said it would like to solve this problem, but grand rhetoric about “parity of esteem” between the academic and vocational has often substituted for any meaningful action. In part this was because the wider economy found other ways to patch its skills gaps, most obviously by importing labour from the European Union.

And it is Brexit that makes the T-Level work so urgent. Whilst everyone might agree that it is the best interests of young people to have a wide variety of career pathways at 18, such humanitarian pieties are not nearly so good at focussing the mind as the potential collapse of major British industries for want of sufficiently skilled workers.

Hinds has been warned the T-Levels might not work, in the most public and bureaucratic fashion possible via his Permanent Secretary seeking explicit instruction to proceed against the civil service’s advice. Hinds could have used this as a chance to shunt the whole thing off into the future. Instead, he has decided to continue anyway—and it is this that answers our question about where he intends to focus his energy. He has rightly identified that the long-term failures of English vocational education need a fix and he is putting substantial political capital into being the person who can fix them.

A brief but necessary postscript to this is to say that this does not mean Hinds is walking away from the reforms of his predecessors: he recently announced money for the latest wave of free schools, and substantial amounts of brain power in the department are still being dedicated to curriculum issues. Nick Gibb, architect and enabler of much of recent education reform, remains in post. But the days in which the Secretary of State had vigorous public debates with elements of the teachers’ unions over these issues are over—whilst the Department will no doubt keep nudging the schools-led system it has built by highlighting those whose successes chime with their vision, efforts at reform look set to be over skills policy.

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