Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In Praise of University Technical Colleges?

I'm surprised that Andrew (Lord) Adonis - Labour guru - thinks that functionalist monocultures should be encouraged in education (see http://news.tes.co.uk/further-education/b/news/2014/07/02/labour-review-calls-for-more-university-technical-colleges-to-tackle-skills-gap.aspx). It seems he's been taken in by the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) lobby in supporting Kenneth Baker's (who'd have thought it!!) idea for industry and university-led schools (actually, it's Baker's second stab at this since the collapse of City Technology Colleges in the 90s). My own university is embarking on this path. I'll be happy to admit I'm wrong in few years when hundreds of citizens thank their lucky stars that they ever crossed the threshold of a UTC, but UTCs seem to embody a very narrow vision of education. Unfortunately, narrowness is attractive to politicians who on the whole are bad at resisting deterministic narratives from lobby groups who insist There Is No Alternative: it makes politics easier - nothing is less electable than fluffy policy.

The irony is that the simplicity of the monoculture tends to garner support, particularly a functionalist monoculture. UTCs provide opportunities for employers to train workers. The hope is that this does something for the employability of students. Maybe. My university's UTC has a chemist's dispensary built into it. Great! Monday morning at the beginning of September will be thrilling as the kids mix all kinds of potions (with fake tablets of course). By Tuesday it'll be "been there, seen that, what next?" Many designers of UTC pedagogies like innovating in education; but they're not good at thinking ideas through: in the case of things like chemist dispensaries, there is a fundamental problem in confusing a single educational activity (mixing and selling potions) with a coherent scheme of work with meaningful progression, differentiation, context awareness, etc. Weirdly, although we were all young once, few other than well-experienced and talented school teachers understand the dynamics of groups of teenage kids who don't really want to be caged in a classroom (or a chemist's dispensary). Universities on the whole are not known for their understanding of this age group.

Having said all this, particularly the problems of understanding teenagers, somebody has to be given the job of setting up a UTC irrespective of how much experience they have. It's a scary job - there's a lot to go wrong. As with any scary job, there is a balance to be struck between wanting to be seen to be competent and knowledgeable on the one hand, and admitting inexperience and requesting help on the other. The functionalism of the UTC philosophy will suit the unfortunate architect of the UTC because it's relatively simple: get some employers involved, say you're doing real stuff for the real world and that kids will get jobs as a result. Easy. Depending on the circumstances of the way in which a school is established, the fear and pressure can create conditions where ill-informed judgements are made: simple solutions to educational problems will always be attractive to the fearful, irrespective of their consequences. The problem in education is that everyone (including, one wonders, education ministers) thinks its easy: it's probably because nobody dies (on the whole). To underline the point of education being regarded as 'easy', one would only have to look at this: http://www.bolton.ac.uk/UTCBolton/SummerSchool/Home.aspx. They wouldn't think this of brain surgery, would they!

The deep problem with UTCs though is not the monoculture (where do the kids do music, play tennis, act in plays or pray?) It's the functionalism of the whole thing. It's the deterministic and behaviouristic approach that says our future economy will be driven by people with 'skills' that have been drummed into them whether they liked it or not as employers pick their favourites to work in their factories, offices and shops (what about the ones left behind?) This is complete bollocks. What theory of education says that this is a good way to proceed, that it will produce what the politicians say they want - that it will create confident, creative and resourceful citizens? Or that it will solve problems of social mobility?

It leaves me (angrily) asking What is the alternative?  The Trades Union education programmes were important in industrial Britain (http://www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/narrativedisplay.php?type=tuandworkereducation). Following Thatcher, a lot of this disappeared. I'm surprised Adonis isn't thinking more about this kind of thing. They did more for social mobility than any University has ever done; many working class members of parliament from both sides of the house owe their position to the unions. The unique thing about the Union education programmes was that it balanced functionalist requirements with a critical perspective. It was political education. There's an interesting sentence near the end of the union history doc (above):
"The Tories paid closer control to the content of publically funded courses and materials, to ensure they were free of 'bias'" 
In other words, the Tories tried to kill it by ensuring it was no longer political! Freire knew that the roots of learning were in overcoming oppression, in surmounting fear. We need schools that are political and critical, not functionalist. Then we might get what the government is looking for.

I would never expect a Tory government to take this proposition seriously - although one might always be surprised: Dominic Cummings (Gove's former adviser) is clearly thinking very deeply about education - I wonder where his journey will take him... see http://dominiccummings.wordpress.com/. His approach currently is still much within the functionalist domain of his former boss - but the cybernetic seeds are there for what might be something different.

I would expect a senior Labour figure to consider the importance of critical education.


andrewggibson said...

It seems that in this model it's not quite the case that they believe "our future economy will be driven by people with 'skills' that have been drummed into them whether they liked it or not as employers pick their favourites to work in their factories, offices and shops". It's seems instead to be the same old educational stratification, because the elite model of education remains intact. The future economy will still be driven, according to this mindset, by those who went to World Class Universities - and everybody else will just happen to be working for them. UTCs are another kludge to provide the universal education required (by the tenets of economic growth) today without having to pay too much for it.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Andrew,

I think either way it's not good!

I suspect you are right that the Tory view is about maintaining the social order. They'll want to raise aspiration to the point that it maintains their position - not that it challenges their authority.

Labour, I fear, really does believe in the skills agenda. In some ways I find that more troubling because it demonstrates an absence of critical thought where it should be most evident.

There is a view about skills gaps (as my colleague Scott Wilson @scottbw drew my attention to) that skills-gaps are really wage expectation gaps. When skills are in short supply, wages rise and employers complain to government. Employers pleading for more skilled workers are really pleading for lower wages.

This is interesting: http://www.careerbuildercommunications.com/pdf/skills-gap-2014.pdf