Hancock’s Half Hour


Talk about taking one step forward and six steps Baccwards…

All Change Please! can report that the other day Skills and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock spent his Half Hour announcing further details of the new TechBacc.



On the one hand was the laudable statement that “From 2015, all practical qualifications for 14- to 16-year-olds will be forced to meet rigorous new standards… to put them on par with academic qualifications”.  Now if All Change Please! didn’t know better it might believe the DfE really did know what they’re talking about this time, but as soon as it read “Previously, young people were encouraged to study meaningless qualifications completely unrelated to their lives or the rapidly changing world of work”, its suspicious were quickly aroused. The statement continued:

Previously, the development of practical skills for 14- to 16-year-olds was too narrowly focused on abstract theory. This has changed so that pupils could now:

  • in woodwork, measure, cut, joint and finish their own piece of furniture – previously they may have just studied the design of a chair

  • in textiles, students may now design and make an outfit from start to finish using a range of dressmaking or tailoring techniques – previously they may have just analysed the impact of changing technology on dress making

  • in electronics, use motion detectors, batteries and microprocessors to wire movement-controlled lighting – previously they may have just analysed a light to see how it functions.

Given that vocational courses are generally aimed at those who find abstract theory difficult to grasp and write academic essays about, it seems rather unlikely that any previous vocational qualifications were awarded simply on the basis of studying the design of a chair, analysing the technological history of dress-making, or describing how a light works. And of course designing and making furniture or an outfit from start to finish, or designing with electronics have long been a feature of GCSE D&T courses.

It rather seems that the DfE have followed Michael Gove, slipping down some sort of mysterious worm-hole time-warp and have found themselves stranded in a make-believe wonderland back in the 1950s where youngsters who are good with their hands end up learning a really useful trade that will see themselves through life, help them set up and maintain their nice new council house and have something nice to wear to church on a Sunday. What appears to be on the horizon is a return to woodwork for the boys and dressmaking for the girls, or as it used to be called in the good old 1950s, ‘Homecrafts’. Not that there’s anything wrong with learning these things, it’s just not even going to match up to the future needs of the ‘white heat of technology’ envisaged back in the 1960s. Somehow it sounds more like a preparation for life on benefits or the minimum wage.

And whatever happened to good old ‘social mobility’? Over the last thirty years the whole argument against these sorts of courses has been that they did not contain enough academic content to enable children who used to be called ‘late-developers’ to change their ‘learning pathway’ and gain entry to University. So how is that going to be resolved? Exactly how will the standards be equated with academic qualifications? It all sounds like another case of something the DfE have not thought through properly, but that doesn’t matter provided it gets some positive spin in the Daily Mail.

Meanwhile these days simply having specific ‘practical’ skills, while better than nothing, is not enough to ensure worthwhile 21st century employment. For example, to have any relevance at all, the ‘woodwork’ course will need to offer a much broader based experience, from wood crafts, coppice management and sustainable forestry, through construction carpentry and joinery, to automated wood fabrication techniques and modern engineered cellulose materials derived from wood products. And the content will also need to ensure that students have a wider understanding of the nature of business and the expectations of the workplace.

And anyway, if we’re going to have a TechBacc, isn’t it also time we had an ArtsBacc?

In other news… an article by Liz ‘No support’ Truss Britain-needs-a-revolution-in-the-classroom claimed that teaching was now the preferred option for Oxford graduates. And that’s the problem: academics are simply breeding more academics – education is little more than a self-perpetuating academic renewal device completely unconnected with the real world.

She’s right of course in one respect, Britain does need a revolution in the classroom. Just not the one that she has in mind.

And finally… some breaking news… Apparently:

Alan Milburn, the Government’s social mobility tsar, says that schools are “wasting young talent on an industrial scale” as figures suggest 2,000 bright pupils from poor backgrounds never reach their potential.

Meanwhile yet another spokesperson from the DfE said: “Improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and closing the gap between the rich and the poor is our overriding ambition.”

By ‘potential’ Alan Milburn means attending a leading academic Russell Group University and doubtless ending up with a job serving coffee at Starbucks, or, of course, teaching. As opposed to the quite unthinkable alternative of following a technical or vocational course and setting up a successful business. Provided that is it’s not in woodwork or dressmaking of course.


Image credits: Flickr  Philip Howard    /  Britt-Marie Sohlström

3 comments on “Hancock’s Half Hour

  1. The ever present Tony Wheeler replies:

    What is the difficulty with AND? Why can we not have academic kids AND practical kids in the same group, where they confront real design challenges together? No technical challenge is purely practical, and the only reason academic challenges have been squeezed clean of any reference to practical is to keep the oiks out. The world in general and particularly in vocational is a mix of skills, knowledge and attitudinal stuff.

    I do not see what relevance a ‘woodwork’ (or textile or electronics) qualification has to a 14 to 16 year old in 2020. The titles and examples seem as irrelevant to contemporary job opportunities as Latin and Greek. The only working ‘woodworkers’ who use the term that I know are a few elite charcoal burners, coppicers, bodgers and woodCRAFT workers, who would be much happier with an inclusive, therapeutic, spiritual subject like Sloyd. What vocational opportunities are these young woodworkers going to be offered with this qualification? Even at an abstract skills level I don’t see any relevance, even allowing for transferability. Whoever is in charge of coming up with this scheme has no clue at all.

    I would imagine that the biggest opportunity for kids likely to be channelled into the proposed woodwork qualification is in construction. All the trades people I know place attitudinal stuff at the top of the list. Sole traders, of which there are many, are worried about employing youngsters, not because they lack the skills but in case they don’t have the right attitude. Turn up on time, follow instructions, be courteous, show some initiative, work reasonably hard… etc. I guess they need to read and add up, but this is not a criticism I have heard. In turn I am regularly challenged (unsuccessfully) to justify all the time spent on Shakespeare, romantic poets, algebra and quadratic equations…

    Also talking to young trades people many have taken a while to find their niche, having started as plumbers they tried out various trades and ended up as roofers. Rather than build courses around a specific skill, I would argue strongly for more generalist vocational areas, i.e., construction instead of woodwork. I would build the courses on attitude and application rather than skills transfer. I would sort out the insurance issues and make sure there were early opportunities to gain real work experience. And I would ensure school based work was applied project-work with real contexts rather than abstract tasks.

    Another thing I have never understood is why with the availability of virtual technologies, we do not model some of the administrative admin that goes with employment. We could virtually ’employ’ students, with a simplified version of all the registrations, cards, NI, etc., they could be virtually paid, clock in, have tax deducted, and so on in an environment where it can be explained and discussed.

    And all this other nonsense about ensuring it’s student’s own work and not ‘cheating’: “…rules must be in place to ensure pupils’ work is “authentic” and “prepared and produced by students independently, without assistance from others and free of plagiarism”.

    The real world is a collaborative space. You have to work together to get things done. Indoctrinating all our youngsters to work in isolation without learning to share and respond to others needs, thoughts and criticisms is quite frankly evil.

    And why such a traditional approach all the time, if all of this is about a more competitive, flexible, technically-savvy, future workforce for UK plc, surely we need to give young people experiences in things like sustainable energy and closed loop production systems, bio technology, genetic engineering, nano technology, cyber crime, big data, digital augmentation, hydroponics and permaculture, crowd funding and financing the future….

    And is anyone under 55 involved in this? Where are the youngsters voices? How do we mobilise young people to realise how much these old grey suits have already stolen from them and get them revolting and demanding their future opportunities are resourced and protected?

  2. Other breaking news (since Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler and Tipton published Habits of the Heart in 1985) – something like 80+% of graduates change career direction by age 25. What do they change their career for? Something less about paid employment and more about calling, in which they can gather new skills and collaborate more, challenge themselves as workers rather than as students.
    Laugh out loud stuff again Tristram. Thanks a plenty.

  3. The TechBacc statements pointed out at the top of this are an insult to anyone’s intelligence.

    I absolutely agree with Tony’s “AND” for getting all types of people working collaboratively together, but it’s not just “practical” versus “academic”! Kids/People can be a bit (or all) of both, so what is this obsession with being one or the other, and as though one is better than the other, or one can’t become/develop the other?

    Somehow, practical skills have become a thing to look down on by those that can’t actually do anything themselves or see it as beneath them somehow. As though a practical skill means you must be a lowly bricklayer, woodworker or car mechanic. I have done all those things at times myself, maybe not as a job, but just because I can and take pride in what I have done for nowt when others may pay thousands to have it all done for them.

    My practical and manual skills have saved me wasting perfectly good products that just needed a simple fix that others would have junked because of one simple part going wrong. I have fixed washing machines, fridges, dishwashers, digital cameras, TV’s, cars, computers, central heating boilers, etc. etc. I was not trained at all in these areas, but you name it and it can be probably fixed. If it was invented and created by man, then it can be fixed by man.

    Just because someone can’t put up a shelf straight or fix a leaking tap, but can pontificate about something they have no experience in at all (errr.. Gove) doesn’t make them superior or above anyone else, in fact maybe far from it. Who would you rather be stranded on a desert island with, Gove or a practical person that could actually find a way of storing drinking water, find and grow food, make clothing and light a fire?

    Enough of this practical versus academic snobbery. Just because some kids don’t manage to apply themselves during their education is more a sign of how things are going wrong for them rather than how wrong they are.

    Proper respect for manual and practical skills is needed, to enhance the academic nature of those jobs/careers. You can’t just build a brick wall, hone a piece of wood or create clothing by being less than able in the academic/thinking department, you have to apply a great degree of creative intelligence and theory before any of those things will work as intended.

    My car mechanic friend was a university mathematician for years before realising his real career choice and it is intriguing to discuss the logic behind today’s car repair requirements with him. Jonathan Ive (Apple’s chief designer) is just a “practical” person as was Steve Jobs (Apple’s creator). The people that designed and took rockets to the moon were all practical people and the same can be said of just about any wonder of the world (new or old) today.

    Without “practical”, informed and skilled understandings of the way things work and interact, whether direct from oneself or in a collaborative with others, the academic side of anything is pretty much just a bunch of hogwash and of no real practical value to anyone. In fact, I might well look down on anyone who is purely academic and wonder what do they really contribute to society and I certainly wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with them, they’d be such a strain and drain on resources.

    Respect is needed for the practical worker, without them we have nothing. Without that respect then the kids that get told they have to be a “manual” worker will not want to do it as all they see is others taking the reward and credit for their blood, sweat and tears. No wonder many seem to resort to crime, seek the celebrity life of fame and riches, just drop out waiting for their big chance, or for at least someone to respect their humble nature.

    I’m fed up with this stupid Manual v Academic argument, I thought people/society had got over all that stupid snobbery along with class distinctions decades ago, but Gove and this government seem to have taken things back even further in time.

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