Is Mathematics Fit for Employment?

 The answer to this long standing question is a resounding no! This is especially certainly true for the mathematics that will be required by most post-16 learners who will progress into employment. The subject is most certainly, fundamental and essential as a body of knowledge but it is the way it is taught and learnt that precipitates the problems. This is particularly important in its application in the workplace and the ability of people to use basic mathematical concepts in everyday life. The level of understanding and ability of the majority of people to apply mathematical and numerical concepts is woefully inadequate in England to cope with the future challenges whether in employment or life in the increasingly scientific and technological world. This sad state is not new one only has to review the innumerable reports, commissions, working parties, focus groups and supposed think traps over the decades. Many of these have presented excellent surveys of the situation but with little effect or impact either in the short and long term. Think tanks indeed! What is needed is DO tanks in the long term! This country is world class in creating bodies to address important issues but these are seldom capable of developing effective and sustained strategies and tactics that bring about solutions to this incredibly important problem.

The evidence from these reports is a matter of record accumulated over many decades and have consistently highlighted the inevitable crisis’s that will confront this strategically important subject at all levels where it is required. Problems exist at all sectors of education, training, in the workplace and with functional numeracy.
Many causes and effects have contributed to this sad state of affairs and include:
  • Cultural factors
  • The existing qualifications frameworks for mathematics and numeracy are flawed and require root and branch reform NOT fudge and mudge/tinkering approaches
  • The way mathematics and numeracy programmes are taught and learnt and this coupled with poor teaching produced a damaging cocktail
  • The environment in which teaching and learning takes place – this is particularly relevant for technical and vocational education and training – the context is absolutely critical for successful and sustained learning
  • The obsession with assessment and testing regimes e.g. teaching to the test syndrome – this results in distortion of content and learning and leads to a lack of understanding of the subjects
  • Issues associated with whether or not learning mathematics is perceived as either a pleasurable or painful experience by many learners. (the Cockcroft Report (1982) highlighted this factor)
  • The general perception of mathematics, particularly by peers, parents and society in general towards the subject
  • The lack of perceived obviousness or immediacy so that people do not turn to mathematics as a first resort to solve everyday problems or to understand the world.
  • People often claim to survive and earn a living without having to resort to mathematics
  • The increased use of computers, calculators and ICT multimedia with little thought of how these techniques and technologies are managed to develop critical capability. Badly managed teaching and learning methods using these techniques creates a passivity or acceptance in the way people want to or indeed expect to learn. A number of commentators have suggested that the obsession of retrieving information from the internet without the critical second stage of reflection, analysis and verification will eventually bring about an outsourcing of the memory to the internet. A thought – could these technologies actually erode the crucial element of curiosity so essential in the learning and understanding of these subjects?
  • Many textbooks are still narrow or mechanical in format and content. Teachers and learners must have access to a wide range of learning materials which are fit for purpose for the learner’s ability and future needs whether for further, higher education and ultimate employment. It is essential that the learning resources are managed effectively by the teachers and this requires appropriate initial and CPD programmes
Perhaps it is too simplistic just to view the negative perception towards the subject in terms of a series of causes and effects. If the problem is about the formation of negative attitudes towards the subject then this must be recognised as a complex process that invariably involves the interaction of a number of factors that ultimately cannot be simply or completely identified and explained. Too often commentators are inclined to regard a consequence as a result of a direct relationship between cause and effect. However, this may be an over simplification. As a consequence it might be more productive to think in terms of what factors the problem is related to instead of what causes the problem. In other words it is about the subtle and complex interactions that occur between the contributing facts cited above rather than a simple causation. Any further reviews must attempt to adopt this approach.
Time and space does not allow these elements to be more fully explored in this brief paper as many have been rehearsed  over years but I would like to focus on the critical area of the mathematics and numerical elements required in technical and commercial education and training. Of all the areas of the mathematics problem this is the one that has been the most neglected and ignored. The majority of the reviews have been associated with the so called academic routes i.e. GCSEs, ‘A’ levels and honours degrees with little or no real analysis of the qualifications frameworks for the vast majority of people who require mathematical and numerical skills for the workplace or life in general. I include in this functional numeracy, financial literacy and the needs of people employed in the main occupational sectors of technical and commercial enterprises. This fact mirrors the neglect of technical education and training in this country over centuries .Part of the problem is the hostility and negative view of technical and vocational subjects which are all too often seen as second class. One of the contributing factors to this negative perception and the hostility to technical subjects is that they often include mathematics and if people have an inadequate background or negative experiences of mathematics when entering post-16 studies they will avoid these subjects.
The current qualifications system is skewed towards the supposed needs of academic study with the misplaced assumption that the content is relevant for all those who will progress onto enter most employment. Any effective curriculum framework must possess the essential characteristics of balance, breadth and balance that are fit for purpose for the learner’s employment intentions and needs. The mathematics for employment in addition to possessing the correct balance of these critical characteristics must be seen as relevant both to the learner and also be appropriate to the area of employment that they will enter. Employers must be involved in the development of the programmes not in a tokenistic way but as equal partners in the process. Too often academics state that employers do not know what they require – a classic example of academic elitistism and arrogance! A successful work based education and training system must be predicated and based on an equal working partnership with employers! The evolving apprentice programmes must work closely with employers and their professional bodies in order to create relevant and up-to-date programmes. Awarding bodies particularly those associated with technical, commercial and vocational qualifications must also keep their programmes under constant review and also involve all interested parties through advisory committees especially employers to achieve an effective monitoring function. A number of Further Education colleges have developed innovative and effective ways of teaching the technical and practical but too often resource constraints have curtailed many of these approaches. Some colleges have developed realistic working environments (RWEs) and as a result are more able to provide more relevant context for the learners. Rigid and inflexible curriculum frameworks taught in inappropriate environments too often stifle creative teaching and learning methods.
The way forward.
  • A root and branch review is urgently required of mathematics and numeracy that is truly fundamental and recognises the differences that are required in content, emphasis, relevance and ultimate use of the subject by the whole spectrum of learners.
  • Many of the problems start at primary school and the reviews must once and for all identify meaningful actions that build a strong foundation for the subject for progression on to the secondary stage of education. A good start has been made with the Rose and Williams report but much, more needs to be done.
  • GCSEs and ‘A’ levels are a mess and urgently need a significant over haul -they are most certainly not fit for purpose for the majority of learners.
  • Pre-16 learners who intend to undertake apprenticeships or enter college to study technical and commercial programmes must have opportunities and access to more relevant and appropriate work related experiences. Previous attempts such as application of number, functional mathematics have had a limited impact and a radical rethink is urgently required. Attractive and appropriate learning environments must be created in order to facilitate more and or more effective partnerships with local colleges and employers established.  
  • Post- 16 education and training also requires an urgent review particularly if the school leaving age is raised – the situation will become even more fractured with leaner’s if they have to do more of the same! A comprehensive new set of qualifications are urgently required that are fit for purpose for all the learners.
  • Existing technical and vocational programmes must be made more flexible and teachers given more freedom to innovate work based education and training methods. Colleges must be resourced more adequately. The creation of more realistic working environments (RWEs) is essential to establish the correct context for teaching and learning. In addition enhancing links with employers by increasing work placements/sandwich programmes for learners with the relevant employers in order to show how mathematics and numerical concepts are used in the work place.
  • The major technical and vocational awarding bodies should as a matter of urgency carry out a fundamental review and audit of their mathematical content of all its programmes to see if they match the requirements of the occupational sectors that the programmes are aimed at.
  • The major technical and vocational awarding bodies should establish stronger working links with mathematics organisations and bodies and establish more effective lobbying strategies to government, politicians and civil servants.

The Importance of Context

Context – Associated surroundings and settings
               – The circumstances relevant to something under consideration
               – Its true meaning
Functionality –The capacity to be practical and functional
                        – Specific application
The current focus on the vocational curriculum has resulted in the development and possible introduction of the so-called vocational diplomas, a revised programme for apprenticeships and the concept of functionality in such subjects in mathematics and literacy. In addition the proposed raising of the school leaving age has rekindled the age-old debates on how to make such programmes attractive and relevant to learners.
A number of real challenges exist when addressing the development of a vocational focus into curricula particularly the content of the material and the critical aspects of ‘how’ and ‘why’ it is taught and learnt. The most critical element in these debates is the context in which subjects are taught and learnt. It is essential that the teaching, learning methods and the environments in which vocational and practical topics are set are appropriate and seen by the learners as being relevant to their course of study and future employment intentions and aspirations.
Previous attempts to introduce and recognise the importance of vocational programmes have largely failed and the current flurry of activity seems yet again to ignore the lessons that should have been learnt from these earlier initiatives. A great deal of effort, money and time has been expended over the past few decades attempting to create a parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. Various initiatives such as General National vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), basic skills programmes e.g. application of number, along with numerous initiatives were introduced by the MSC, DfEE and DfES (see the history of technical education for more details of these initiatives). All failed because of a complex mix of factors such as the negative perception, of both learners and society, of the value of technical education and training resulting in the subsequent second class status of employment in trade, craft and technician occupations. The so-called academic route i.e. GCE and GCSE has always been perceived as superior and attempts to establish parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes have successively failed. Government interference and ignorance have not helped in these endeavours.
One long standing factor associated with these developments is the damaging and sterile arguments by many of the specifications writers, who are usually pure mathematicians, who have stated that ‘the context makes no difference to the learning and teaching process and that it can be distracting from the real mathematics’. So does this mean that mathematics taught in a practical environment is non-real? How can appropriate teaching and learning environments be created for locating mathematical subjects in the relevant vocational context? Two distinct but related aspects need to be recognised and carefully configured, comprising the basic topics and the application of those topics into a particular vocational setting.   Firstly all learners need to be competent and confident in the basic elements of number and certain key mathematical topics and operations such as arithmetic, algebra etc that form the fundamental building blocks. The second aspect is the application of these basic elements as required in particular employment areas. The first challenge is to make the connection between these two essential aspects particularly the relevance for the learner namely the value and relevance of the basic operations and their subsequent application in an employment context/setting.
The next complication is the wide diversity of the mathematical requirements across the multitude of employment areas. The limited research of mathematics in the work place has identified and highlights this challenge. Essential topics identified include conversions involving %/ fractions/imperial and SI units, transpositions, estimation, the need to understand the importance of tolerances/errors etc. Many teachers and tutors in FE have for decades succeeded in getting students to understand and adapt mathematical operations to their work environments. Many of these teachers have worked in those employment areas or are part-time tutors still active in the relevant industry or service and as a result fully appreciate what is required. Having taught a wide range of CGLI, ONC/OND and HNC/HND programmes in such courses as hairdressing, construction studies, institute of meat, medical laboratory technician’s one quickly understands the challenges. Imagine the challenge of explaining the importance of ph values to hairdressing students! These challenges can be addressed but only if the teacher/tutor fully understands and appreciates how the basic mathematics is to be applied. They have to have direct experience of the applications and teach those elements in the appropriate environment/setting. Much can be achieved through simulation or more effectively in a real work environment (RWE). This approach immediately presents problems for the institution and the teacher, particularly resources e.g. financial, human and physical. Teachers must be qualified and experienced; institutions must possess the appropriate teaching and learning environments and adequate funding must be available to resource the work. In other words the resources and infrastructure most be fit for purpose.
Some of the best current work in Britain is in the armed forces, particularly in the basic skills of information technology, numeracy and literacy. The entry level of many recruits is very low and the army in particular is achieving excellent results. The need for the modern army to be proficient in application of number and IT requires personnel to understand complex mathematical concepts in such areas as navigation, weapon techniques and logistics. They also need to be able to communicate, with people in countries where they are active, in English and elements of foreign languages when posted abroad. The Services most certainly exploit real working environments and the results are remarkable. Obviously the situations are not so demanding or extreme for other professions but the armed forces highlight the advantages of teaching and learning in real contexts.
Space only allows one example of how tutors have attempted to create the correct teaching and learning environment. For example in a painting and decorating class the students were introduced to the need to estimate the amount of material to be used to decorate a room. The tutor – a practicing professional – stressed the importance of getting the estimations right as their employer would not appreciate an under or over estimation which would alienate the customer, damage his/her reputation and the profit margin. Under careful guidance in a real working environment the students very quickly understood the importance of estimating quantities of the materials to be used i.e. wall paper, paints, the correct sizes of brushes etc. They began to easily and confidently quantify areas, paint volumes and tolerations/errors, conversion of imperial/SI units and costings. Yet before the course they would openly deny that they understood mathematics and that they hated the subject.
In order for the current development of vocational programmes and functional mathematics to be successful a great more attention needs to be given to context.

Finsbury Technical College (1883-1924) and the Central Institution

One of the aims following the creation of the City and Guilds of London Institute in 1878 was to establish a Central Institution in London to improve the training of craftspeople. The CGLI was initially unable to find premises of a suitable size for the Central Institute and as a result founded the Finsbury Technical College, which would act as the first feeder for the Central Institution. The college opened in 1883 and is now recognised as the first technical college in England. Its design was to be ‘model trade school for the instruction of artisans and other persons preparing for intermediate posts in industrial works’. The college was formed out of the Cowper Street Schools where some evening classes were already being offered before the City and Guilds Institute assumed responsibility in 1878. Philip Magnus had taught mechanics at the Cowper Street site before he gained the position at the CGLI. The college offered opportunities for daytime and evening study and subjects included building, design, drawing, engineering, mathematics and science. Philip Magnus the first secretary and organising director and was ably supported by a number of remarkable professors who between them quickly established the college as a centre of innovative and progressive instruction. As a result the Finsbury Technical College quickly established its credibility as a successful institution and this subsequently provided the future model for the pattern of technical colleges across the country. Its success depended greatly on the founding professors namely Henry Armstrong (1848-1937), William Ayrton (1847-1908), Silvanus Thompson (1851-1916) and John Perry (1850-1920). Armstrong for example was able to develop and refine his revolutionary methods of teaching science at the college. Silvanus P. Thompson was professor of physics and later was Principal of the Finsbury College for thirty years. William. E. Ayrton (1847-1908) was Professor of Physics and Telegraphy (1883-1884) and went on to become a Professor at the Central Institution (1884-1908) when that was finally created in 1884. John Perry was a brilliant electrical engineer who had been Kelvin’s assistant at Glasgow and also worked with William Ayrton at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo (see biography of these remarkable individuals on this website).
The Central Institution was eventually opened in 1884 in a purpose designed building in South Kensington adjacent to the Royal School of Mines (RSM) and the Royal College of Science (RCS). In 1907 the RSM and the RCS were incorporated into Imperial College and the Central Institution was renamed the City and Guilds College and subsequently incorporated into Imperial College in 1910 and became an established and noted engineering college. A picture of the Central Institution is shown below.
Central Institution
‘The Journal Nature’.  Page 807. 24th November 1936.

Sir Philip Magnus (1842-1933)

Educationalist, First Secretary of the CGLI and Founding Principal of Finsbury Technical College.
Born in London Philip Magnus studied at University College, London graduating in the Arts in 1863 and the University of London graduating in science in 1864. After graduating he continued his theological studies between 1865 and 1866 in Berlin. On returning to London he became a minister at the Berkeley Street Synagogue but gradually became more involved in teaching, lecturing and examining. Philip Magnus in addition to his private teaching he was professor of the Catholic University and wrote a text book entitled “Lessons in Elementary Mechanics” that became a standard work for many years. He increasingly questioned the existing practices and systems of education and was perceived as a radical.
Soon after the City and Guilds Institute of London for the Advancement of Technical Education (CGLI) assumed responsibility for the technological examinations from the Society of Arts (SoA/[R]SA) an  advert appeared in Nature for the position of an “Organising Director and Secretary”. The post initially was part-time and carried an annual salary of £ 400. Philip Magnus was the successful candidate who because of his background and being a person possessing the necessary vision to develop new and innovative approaches to technical education was seen as an ideal candidate for the position. One of the first challenges was to manage the very successful Technical School in Cowper Street, London. The student numbers had grown significantly and the existing accommodation and facilities were now inadequate. An extensive range of evening classes were provided for artisans wanting to learn about the basic principles of they work. Classes were provided for chemists, dentists, engineers, telegraphics, and printers – the list was truly remarkable. Eventually on 26th July 1880 the CGLI Executive Committee agreed to establish a new institution namely the Finsbury Technical College. Philip Magnus was appointed as its first Principal (1883-1885) and drafted the overall strategy for the new institution. The task of developing the schemes of work and methods of instruction fell to the professors namely Henry Armstrong (1848-1937) (1), William Ayrton (1847-1904) and Silvanus Thompson (1851-1916). Thompson later became Principal of the College and held the post for thirty years. These three remarkable individuals pioneered new teaching techniques in science education particularly the experimental aspects of science and electricity. [I  have provided more detail about the Finsbury College and its teachers in a separate biography]. Magnus was the driving force behind the development of the college. Even at this time he was highlighting through his writings and lectures the massive investment in technical education being made in Germany compared with Britain and the consequences for Britain’s industrial future. He wrote a seminal text book on Mechanics and his publication “Industrial Education” (1888) is considered a classic of its kind. He was very influential in the development of the Central Institution located in South Kensington, (opened in June 1884), and its existence was due to the support from the City and Guilds both financially and through the expertise of Magnus. Magnus was a member of the London School Board in 1890 and 1891, a fellow of the London University Senate from 1900 and Chairman of the Education Committee of the Borough Polytechnic. Sir Philip Magnus became the leading authority on technical education and was a significant and influential member of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction – the Samuelson Report (1881–1884). Portrait of Bernard Samuelson shown below.
Bernard Samuelson
In spite of his status and reputation he experienced many setbacks during his life and career for further details see Lang (2). A remarkable individual and a great supporter of the creation of technical education who made significant contributions to its development.
 Magnus wrote two excellent books: Educational Aims and Efforts 1880-1910′ Longmans, Green, and Co. 1910. and ‘Industrial Education’ Kegan Paul, Trench and Co. 1888. London – well worth reading.
(1)   Van Preach. G. ‘H.E. Armstrong and Science Education.’ John Murray. 1973.
(2)   J. Lang. “City and Guilds of London Institute. Centenary 1878 – 1978.” CGLI publications. 1978.
(3)   B. Bailey. “Sir Philip Magnus.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.
(4)   F. Foden. “Philip Magnus: Victorian Educational Pioneer.” Vallentine, Mitchell-London. 1970. Frank Foden has written the seminal biography of Magnus.
(5)   P. Magnus. “Industrial Education.” K. Paul and French and Co. 1888.

Bernhard Samuelson (1820-1905)

Educationalist, Industrialist, Liberal Politician and Pioneer of Technical Education
Born in Hamburg and brought up in Hull and educated at the Rev J Blezard’s school he started work in his father’s business and was then apprenticed to a Swiss company in Liverpool. After the apprenticeship he worked in a manufacturing firm Sharp, Stewart and Company based in Manchester that exported machinery. This appointment gave him opportunities to travel extensively across Europe. Samuelson was now a qualified iron-master and gained extensive experience of exporting locomotives and machinery. Samuelson bought a small agricultural manufacturing company in Banbury in1848 and made a great success of this enterprise helping to turn Banbury from a market town into a major industrial centre and by 1872 was producing 8,000 reaping machines. Also the production of iron, tar and other products from his ironworks had grown significantly.  As a result he became a very successful businessman with factories in America, France and was instrumental in developing the iron and steel complex on Tees-side and at Newport. He became active in politics from 1865 until 1895 serving in the Gladstone administrations and as an MP represented Banbury and later North Oxfordshire. Samuelson had a wide range of interests ranging across such subjects as: industrial issues, mathematics, modern languages, music and the urgent need to develop technical education. He became well known for his advocacy of scientific and technical education. Not unsurprisingly Samuelson was not a typical businessman particularly at this time being passionate about the diffusion/spread of scientific and technical knowledge and concepts whilst managing major business enterprises and holding down a political career.
From 1867 he travelled widely and made a detailed comparative study of European technical education drawing insightful conclusions about the English education system particularly technical education. As a result of his interests he wrote many technical papers and chaired committees on these subjects. Samuelson chaired the first formally established parliamentary investigation into education and industry in 1868 and was appointed chair to the Royal Commission on Technical Education (1882-84). In addition he served on the Devonshire Commission representing the Science and Art Section of the Report. He also was a member of the Cross Commission (1888). He was elected an FRS in 1881. In 1884 Samuelson, see portrait opposite, created a technical institute in Banbury that was formally opened by Antony Mundella (1825-1897).
He was a member of the the Institution of Civil Engineers, a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and an FRS.
Samuelson in the preface to ‘Technical Education’ (1) (F.C. Montague 1887) voiced concern about the inadequate level of funding for scientific studies and that technical institutions were in constant financial difficulty being ‘inadequately provided with funds and not numerously frequented’. Throughout his life he was a strong advocate for the creation of high standards of technical education in Britain that were comparable to those he had witnessed in his travels in Europe.
Useful references:
(1)   Montaque. F. C. ‘Technical Education.’ Cassell. 1887.
       and the Oxford Directory of National Biographies.

The Lunar Society (1765-1813)

Soho House
A meeting of inventors, scientists and natural philosophers – such was the purpose of the Lunar Circle, as it was known when it was started in 1765, changing its name to the Lunar Society of Birmingham ten years later. Like the better-known Royal Society, the group comprised individuals from industry and science, but what made it special was that all the members were interested in the application of science to such disciplines as education, manufacturing, medicine, mining and transportation.
Meetings of the society took place in members’ homes including Soho House in Birmingham and in Lichfield see above. They were scheduled at the time of the full moon because travelling at night, when no street lighting existed, could be dangerous and many of the members had to travel a long way to get to the meetings. Members even referred to themselves as the ‘lunatics’ (at the time called lunaticks). The image above is of Soho House the home of Matthew Boulton and is open to the public. A portrait of Matthew Boulton is shown below.
Matthew Boulton
 Membership of the Society was relatively small, around 12 to 14 at any one time, and represented some of the leading scientists and innovators of the time. The core group of the ‘lunatics/lunaticks’ was made up of names to conjure with: Matthew Boulton shown opposite, who created one of the first factories, James Watt of the steam engine fame, Joseph Priestley who first isolated oxygen, scientist and industrialist Josiah Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin, whose ideas on evolution anticipated those of his more famous son.
Matthew Boulton
Joseph Priestley
 A portrait of Joseph Priestley is shown opposite.
Others included Samuel Galton Junior, James Keir, William Murdock, John Whitehurst and William Withering. In addition the Society corresponded with and received visits from a succession of eminent individuals, among them Richard Arkwright, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Anna Seward. (More detail on the core membership given below). The Society was particularly interested in chemistry and its industrial application but discussions ranged widely across many aspects of the emerging manufactured products and scientific techniques arising from the Industrial Revolution. Particular specialism’s represented by the Society included ceramics, education, electrical technologies, engineering, geology, manufacturing technologies, mining, medical science and transportation systems, particularly canals. Unlike the later philosophical and literacy societies which followed in its footsteps, the Lunar Society did not directly engage in discussions on politics or religion although they did discuss social, political and economic issues. One of the issues that did discuss were the evils of slavery which many members abhorred and lobbied for its abolition.
The Society was formally wound up in 1813. The remaining members (Keir, Watt, Edgeworth and Galton), staged a lottery to allocate the library books and Samuel Galton won.
The Lunar Society may not have been the only group of its kind – others existed in other parts of the country – but it was certainly one of the most remarkable and influential gathering of polymaths of any time. Individually and through the Society, its members contributed greatly to the development of industrial processes and technical education. A present – day Lunar Society exists and aims, like its illustrious eighteenth-century predecessor, to play a leading part in the development of Birmingham and the wider region.
Membership in more detail:
Matthew Boulton, Exploited the potential of James Watt’s condensing and rotary steam engines, very successful business man and much more.
Erasmus Darwin. Grandfather of Charles Darwin, a medical doctor who also researched topics in botany and anticipated many of Charles ideas associated with evolution.
Thomas Day. Educational thinker and reformer.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Educational reformer and pioneer in the application of electricity e.g. telegraphy. Invented and improved machinery for agricultural industries. Wrote a book Practical Education
Samuel Galton. Gun maker.
Robert Augustus Johnson. Chemist.
James Keir. Industrial chemist particularly in the manufacture of glass and soap.
John Levett.
Joseph Priestley. An extraordinary amateur scientist discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water and many more other discoveries.
William Murdock. Inventor including gas lighting – first used domestically in Redruth, Cornwall.
William Small. Medical doctor with a very wide set of interests including chemistry, engineering, mathematics (taught the young Thomas Jefferson) and metallurgy.
John Smeaton.
Jonathon Stokes. Botanist.
James Watt. Inventor of the condensing and rotary steam engines along with a wide range of other industrial processes e.g. copying, scientific instrumentation design and manufacture and even canal surveying.
Josiah Wedgewood. Very famous ceramist, active advocate for the development of canals
John Whitehurst. Horologist and pioneering geologist particularly interested in how the earth was created.
William Withering. Medical doctor also a noted botanist and major interest in chemistry and metallurgy.
Corresponding members included Benjamin Franklin and the famous civil engineer John Smeaton.
A truly remarkable group of individuals!
Uglow. J. ‘The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future’. Faber and Faber. 2002.

Also see biography on this website ‘Great Engineers and Pioneers’ many of whom were members of the Lunar Society.


The Appliance of Science

It was the advent of the industrial revolution that powered growth in the public interest in science during the late eighteenth century, just as much as it powered the mills and factories springing up across the land. Interest in such matters during the previous century had stemmed from the more cerebral aspects of the Enlightenment, and this was reflected in the formation and proceeding of the Royal Society (1660), whose deliberations were focussed on the pure and theoretical aspects of the major scientist discoveries being made by people such as Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Similar separate and independent bodies were created in Scotland and Ireland: the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783) and the Royal Irish Academy (1785).

During the eighteenth century public interest moved progressively towards the more applied, technical and vocational aspects of scientific discoveries and the basic principles associated with industrial and manufacturing processes. In 1754 the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was establishes which ultimately became the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Founded by William Shipley, the Society quickly received support from aristocrats, manufacturers and people from wider professional groups. They sponsored grants and premiums for improvement in agriculture, industry and the trades. Even here, though, an emphasis on pure aspects of science and technology persisted. The academic view taken by the new society reflected the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and reluctance to recognise and value the more technical aspects and the application of scientific discoveries.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Society continued to be the premier body representing science subjects. Its work was complemented by that of many other newly-established learned societies, including the Linnaean Society (1788), dedicated to “the cultivation of the Science of Natural History in all its branches”, the Medical Society of Edinburgh (1734), the Medical Society of London (1773) and the Physical Society of Edinburgh (1771). Other specialist bodies were subsequently established in the nineteenth century, including the Chemical Society (1841), the Geological Society (1807), the Royal Astronomical Society (1820) and the Zoological Society (1826).

In 1799 the Royal Institution was created by the American-born but strongly loyalist Benjamin Thompson, who spent much of his life as an employee of the Bavarian government where he received his title ‘Count of the Holy Roman Empire’ thereafter becoming known as Count Rumford. The new organisation initially reflected Rumford’s interest  in heat, providing lectures on the application of science in the domestic setting, covering such concerns as ovens, ventilations and heating systems. After Rumford returned to Germany, Humphry Davy assumed the role of head of the Institution laboratory and changed the lecture format and content to focus on the teaching of science. Davy was succeeded by Michael Faraday who introduced a wide range of scientifically based lectures including the famous Christmas lectures, which continue to this day.

Happily interest in science was not restricted by social class. Membership of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society (1717) was largely comprised of weavers and was initially fixed at 64 (the square of 8). They met weekly to solve mathematical problems and perform experiments on pneumatic pumps, electrical devices, reflecting microscopes and telescopes.  The Society created an extensive library from which members could borrow books and equipment. Notable members included John Dollard, who went on to create the famous optical instruments company. The Society expanded by taking over other mathematical and historical society societies but because of the rise of the Mechanics’ Institutions, the decline of handloom weaving and trade recessions, was eventually absorbed by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1845. Other similar societies existed in Lancashire and Yorkshire and again the membership was largely comprised of weavers. Why, one wonders, were weavers so keen on mathematics – perhaps the importance of patterns and symmetry?

More detail on scientific and technical professional bodies can be found in other biographies and pen portraits in this section and in the history of technical education.



Teaching and Learning – Time for a reappraisal?


Two of the recurring themes in the history of technical education and training were the continuing negative perception of scientific and technological subjects and the quality of the teaching of these and related subjects. These critical factors have contributed to the low participation in these subjects in education and training institutions and thwarted attempts to address, resolve and raise the low esteem of scientific and technological disciplines. In addition the continuing low level of skills in the population and the imbalance in the skills equilibrium over the past few decades have created skills gaps and shortages. As part of the solution to these problems there needs to be an urgent and fundamental reappraisal of teaching and learning of practical, scientific, technical and vocational subjects and indeed other subjects. Finally there are the continuing concerns over the population’s capability in numeracy, mathematics, scientific literacy and statistics that are so essential in developing confidence and competence in technical and vocational subjects. The history highlighted a number of the ongoing weaknesses in the learning and teaching of the subjects at all levels in education and training. Below are a few of the more important elements that need urgently addressing and include:
·         A fundamental review and reform of teaching and learning methods/techniques and environments
·         Greater use of work experience programmes and use of realistic working environments (RWEs) and the greater use of apprenticeships, internships and sandwich programmes across the education and training system
·         Greater equality of involvement by employers in determining the nature, delivery and monitoring of the curriculum
·         The development of a more coherent, effective, relevant and up to date system of labour market intelligence (LMI)
·         Parity of esteem between general/academic and technical/vocational qualifications and awards
The list is by no means complete but in this article I will focus on the teaching and learning element and will write separate articles on each of the others although it must be stressed that all are interrelated and cannot be divorced from each other as they interact in complex ways with each other.
 For too long the emphasis and focus has been on teaching and the teacher, resulting in little attention being paid to the process of learning and recognition that learners possess different learning styles and expectations. Also different topics and subjects require differing emphases, styles and techniques in the way they are taught to maximise the learning. Learning must become the most important factor in the teaching and learning equation. Too often the wider aspects of pedagogy have been marginalised especially in regard to the learners. Teaching and learning have become in a sense an inverted process in the current system. A transformation is urgently required that puts less emphasis on pedantic teaching and a move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ to more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher should been seen more of a resource rather than the fountain of all knowledge and a transmitter of information. The teacher as a resource could assume the roles of a constructor, demonstrator, facilitator, mentor, and observer depending on the context of the learning situation. This is not easy as the situation currently is made worse by constant government interventions and short term fixes, an over prescriptive and over loaded curriculum with its obsession with testing, and the damaging consequences of leagues tables and meaningless and highly questionably targets. Teachers are as a result compelled and pressured to teach to rigid and inflexible syllabuses whilst assessment regimes dominate for much of the time and as a result a great deal of teaching is largely focussed on the tests and assessments i.e. ‘the teaching to test syndrome’. Sadly the essential link between professional and work practice and the subject has been lost and has become significantly weakened. The subject takes precedence over the ultimate practice and utilisation.  This is the part work experience/placement programmes can play during the formal teaching and the point at which the most effective way of learning by doing and gaining experience can be realised. One of the real deficiencies in technical and vocational education and training is the demise of apprenticeships and internships over the past few decades. These programmes allowed the learners to gain experience and practise in real work based situations. Research and various surveys have shown that only 10 to 20% of what one sees or hears as a learner in a formal teaching situation is retained whilst 95% of what a person experiences and learns on job is remembered and retained. In addition any form of learning must develop a sense of the importance of making the connections between the various elements within the given subjects but equally important the need to make connections with other disciplines. 
One of the essential outcomes of effective learning is to develop critical, reflective and lateral thinking skills along with the wider and transferable skills that prepare people for life and employment. Sadly today these key elements are too often neglected as teachers are required to cover an over prescriptive and often time constrained curriculum.  Information appears to be more important than the underpinning data, detail and knowledge that is relevant in actual work situations. The conveying of information is the over riding consideration together with the need to achieve success in examinations so that schools and colleges can figure well in the league tables and achieve misplaced targets set by the government. The real function and purpose of effective and sustained learning is marginalised and the students are as a result ill prepared for employment, further and higher study or indeed to possess these important skills in general life. The ability to be work ready is crucial especially at this time of rapidly changing work practices, rapidly updated and new technologies and global competition. Equally importantly these narrow approaches to learning stifle the motivation of the learner and can create a resistance and reluctance to engage in lifelong learning. As already mentioned what seems to have happened is the subject has become detached from the practice. A number of commentators have argued that this began with the Renaissance which placed the mind as the vehicle for intellectual pursuit over its use in the crafts and trades and this has continued since. I partly agree with this analysis based on the evidence in more recent times of the concept of academic drift, the lack of parity of esteem between technical/vocational and general/vocational qualifications and the general perception of the value of manual skills. This transformation in many ways was inevitable but the consequences were damaging as the crafts and trades i.e. the manual skills were relegated when compared with solely cerebral pursuits. The perception was created that practical skills were inferior to intellectual ones and the latter attracted greater esteem in the minds of people and it sadly became a social norm. This does not mean that intellectual skills are not required in the demonstration of practical skills. One only has to analyse the enrolments at colleges and universities to see the differences in numbers studying subjects that do not require practical skills as evidenced by the closures of many technical departments in colleges and the low numbers of learners who opt for technical subjects.
Also at university level the demise of work placement on degree programmes often called sandwich courses has weakened many technical, vocational and other professional programmes. Work placement programmes either operated as a small segment throughout the duration of the degree programme (often referred to as thin sandwiches) or on a full one year release basis (called thick sandwich). Sadly many universities stopped these on a number of grounds although some, mainly the former Polytechnics have continued them. Evidence has shown that the graduates of sandwich programmes gain employment more quickly than their peers who did not undertake such a programme and also gain a better class of degree, in some cases by a whole classification. Also many are offered employment by the company that offered the work experience opportunity in the first place. Sadly many students at university now want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible partly because of the financial burden of student grants and loans even though companies pay placement students a very good salary whilst on placement. If the government and universities are committed to the so called employability agenda then the reintroduction of more sandwich programmes is urgently required. A recent survey showed that a number of so-called blue chip companies in banking and financial services actually charged students to undertake work experience – not exactly a way of encouraging the development of work placement programmes!
Technical and practically orientated subjects are not the only ones that suffer from an undue emphasis on teaching rather than learning. Subjects such as management, law, financial services suffer also. Colleges and universities around the world turn out tens of thousands of MBAs each year who then enter into senior positions based on the assumption that the degree gives them the background to manage and lead organisations! Many of these degrees do not include direct experience of the way organisations operate holistically but rather whilst at college or university students are taught about just some of the parts of an organisation. Also they are not shown the complex ways in which the parts of the organisation interact with each other. Information is compartmentalised and the learners graduate imprinted with information, limited underlying detail and simplistic models that are partial and inflexible without meaningful questions ‘about what if’.  Most prospective managers or practicing managers are discouraged from recognising and rectifying mistakes whether made by be omission (actually the more important of the mistakes one can make) or on the operational/managerial side. Examples of failure to recognise mistakes by omission include traditional photographic companies that did not anticipate and recognise the advent and subsequent revolution in digital technologies and that IBM did not develop personal and laptop computers. Unrectified mistakes by omission inevitably lead to company liquidation and/or mergers and takeovers.  One learns more by mistakes than by doing the tasks correctly – this being a crucial element of learning on job. Learning by one’s mistakes is surely a fact of life and to paraphrase Karl Popper a negative is more positive than a positive! But the existing culture in organisations is predominately one of not admitting mistakes and this is most certainly true of politicians where it is easier and safer to blame someone else.  The recent global financial crisis has shown the dangers of this over reliance on the existing organisational and management approaches particularly with banks and insurance enterprises.
A number of professions e.g. surgery and other parts of the medical profession have to undertake an internship/junior doctors etc whilst training and this is integrated and an essential part of the programmes and yet studies in law and management seldom include such approaches. Perhaps the entry to degrees such as MBAs should only be allowed after several years in work. The students have become workers and gained valuable experience and can bring that to the programme. The possible sequence could be represented as: initial formal education/training > several years of employment > further formal education. Interestingly before law schools became the norm prospective lawyers and the like learnt their profession in actual practice. Surely it is just a case of achieving a balance between theory and practice through formal learning and direct work experience via internships and apprenticeships.
Another fundamental fault is that many learners/graduates are given a specialised vocabulary/jargon that they do not really understand when applied in the workplace and a set of operating principles/models that are equally inappropriate when having to deal with real-time crises and unfamiliar situations. The models given to students are often dated, inflexible and unable to react quickly enough to rapid changes in the work context and again this is evidenced in the current financial and global turbulence within corporations and international markets.
Future articles on the site will pick up the other issues mentioned in the list above. Little of what I have said is new but on current evidence radical reform is still awaited.
There needs to be an urgent and fundamental review and reform of how teaching and learning occurs at all stages of the education and training system. This time not a think tank BUT a do tank!

James Hole (1820 – 1895)

Sadly little is known about this remarkable individual and as a result he has not received the recognition that he truly deserves in the development of the Mechanics’ Institutions and in his contributions to adult and technical education. The testimony to his commitment and far sighted ideas on the Mechanics’ Institutions movement and adult and technical education is reflected in his seminal essay subsequently published as a book in 1853 (1) for which he received an award from the Society of Arts (SoA/[RSA]. The Society had organised an essay writing competition following their annual conference in May 1852 in which they had discussed the Mechanics’ Institution movement. It is a remarkable piece of work that is still relevant and merits reading today. The essay describes the part played by a number of educational agencies in the teaching of working people. The prize brought Hole to the attention of the Society of Arts and he was instrumental with two other members of the Society namely James Booth and Harry Chester in creating a national examination system (see history of technical and commercial examinations and the biographies).
James Hole was born in London in 1820 and moved to Manchester when still in his youth where he became an active member of the Mechanics’ Institution movement. He then moved to Leeds in the early 1840s writing a large number of books and articles in journals mainly focussing on improving the life of workers particularly through their education. Subjects covered by his writings included co-operative undertakings, housing and his main passion adult education. Hole was an Associationist, a movement pre-dating that of the  Fabians, which advocated the benefits that would be realised by the best use of existing and emerging associations in the community, state-fostered or voluntary, to improve society. Hole argued strongly that everyone, and most certainly the working class, had a right to education. He continually argued that education was not a privilege but an absolute right. In spite of the fact that Hole had reservations he argued that a national system was essential as a wholly voluntary system was inadequate. He argued cogently that the government should provide funds at national and local levels although he expressed reservations about state control and the dangers of intervention and interference from the politicians. Hole was critical of the government’s earlier attempts to subsidise schools but praised the benefits of local and voluntary efforts by comparing ‘day work’ and ‘piece work’ in the businesses and factories. He felt that Mechanics’ Institutions should be supported by
central government but that they should not be in competition with government schools.He became very involved in adult education and the Mechanics’ Institutions in Leeds and Yorkshire holding the post of Honorary Secretary of the Yorkshire Union of Institutes between 1848 and 1857. In that capacity he became the most knowledgeable person about the Mechanics’ Institution movement. The essay referred to above provided a very systematic, detailed and reasoned analysis of the Institutions highlighting their weaknesses, benefits and potential. Hole did not write about education policy preferring to survey the educational agencies that were associated with worker education in Leeds. Agencies and institutions described in the essay included day and evening schools, Sunday schools, criminal and pauper education agencies and Mechanics’ Institutions. He was a very loyal, committed and highly regarded citizen of Leeds. A rare portrait of James Hole is shown below kindly sent to me by his great-great granddaughter Tina Ash.
J Hole
He established an itinerant village library service in 1852 operated by the Yorkshire Union of Mechanic’s Institutions The travelling library issued boxes of fifty books every six months to subscribers who paid one penny per week. This invaluable service continued for over forty years.
As mentioned above Hole was instrumental with Booth and Chester in creating the Society of Arts examinations. Chester and Hole saw that an examination system could be a useful way of improving the effectiveness and management of the Mechanics’ Institutions. These two individuals began the development and James Booth then implemented the examination system. Hole felt that examinations were a relatively simple but essential way of reforming and improving the performance of the Institutions. Equally important was to provide high quality instruction for workers that prepared them for work and as members for society. Hole felt that the main weakness of the Mechanics’ Institutions was that they had adopted the wrong form of instruction. The three most common methods of learning were the library, lectures and class teaching. He observed that class teaching was the most effective but too often there were few good teachers and suitable classrooms. Other weaknesses highlighted included the mechanics’ inadequate elementary education and their reluctance to stay the course although in many cases this was understandable (see history of technical education). Accepting these weaknesses Hole felt that examinations could bring about improvements and act as a motivator. In his essay he proposed the creation of a national Union of Institutes and its examiners would establish greater confidence through the introduction of a comprehensive system of examinations rather than the somewhat divisive awarding of certificates of proficiency that often created ill-feeling amongst the learners.
Eventually he returned to London in 1867 where he died in 1895. Two years before his death is published a book on national railways arguing for a state owned system.
It is time to recognise more fully this remarkable individual and his thoughts, ideas and achievements on adult, social and technical education.
(1). Hole. J. ‘Light, More Light!’ on the Present State of Education Amongst the Working Classes of Leeds Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts. 1860.
Foden. F. ‘The Examiner –James Booth and the origin of common examinations’. Leeds Studies in Adult and Continuing Education. 1989.

Henry Cole (1808 – 1882)

Born in Bath in 1808 Henry Cole was a designer, writer, noted inventor and civil servant who was responsible for a number of innovations in commerce and art design education. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital, London and at the age of 15 years worked at the Public Records Department as an assistant keeper and was responsible for a number of reforms improving the preservation arrangements for what at the time were ill-preserved materials housed in the British National Archives. He was also an assistant to Rowland Hill between 1837 and 1840 and played an important part in the introduction of the penny black postage service. He also wrote a number of children’s books as well as on some famous buildings in London under the pseudonym of Felix Summerly. Throughout his life he was very interested in design and established an art manufacturing company and was responsible for designing a number of artifacts including a tea service manufactured by Minton. He was also responsible in 1843 for producing the first commercial Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley.
His involvement in education arose from his membership of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce [R]SA. Under the auspices of the [R]SA and the support of the Prince Consort he organised in 1847 an Exhibition of Art Manufactures which was subsequently staged and enhanced in the following two years. Following a visit to the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition he highlighted the absence of international exhibitors. The Society was planning to stage exhibitions in 1850 and 1851 and he argued strongly for these to have an international dimension. As a result the Royal Commission for the 1851 Exhibition was established that led to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations held in 1851. As the History of Technical Education identifies, a number of positive outcomes for the development of art, science and technical education in Britain arose from the 1851 Exhibition. Henry Cole played a significant part in its success and with the support of the Prince Consort and Lyon Playfair (see biography) used the surpluses from the Exhibition to purchase land in South Kensington that led to the development of a number of educational and cultural centres. Cole also developed a national system for art and design education. He was appointed the first General Superintendent of the Department of Practical Art established by the government to improve the development of industrial art and design. Many perceived Cole as an authoritarian person and argued that his appointments were often based on political and royal patronage. He was reputably a difficult man to get on with and had his favourites and surprisingly showed little interested in science. He did not particularly get on with Lyon Playfair when working together on the organisation of the Great Exhibition and on other occasions when they were required to work together (1). He was involved in the creation of the Victoria and Albert Museum which was formally called the Museum of Ornamental Art based in Marlborough House. Eventually the new museum was re located to South Kensington and called the South Kensington Museum which finally became the Victoria  and Albert museum. Cole was also involved in the creation of the Royal College of Art which was a postgraduate design institution. the Royal College of Music and Imperial College.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and knighted in 1875. During his working life he received great encouragement and patronage from the Prince Consort.
(1)    Foden. F. ‘The Examiner. James Booth and the origins on common examinations’. Leeds Studies in Adult and Continuing Education. 1989.
General references:
Cole Henry. Cole. ‘Fifty Years of public Work’. Bell. 1884.
Bonython. E. and Burton. A. ‘The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole’. V and A. London. 2003.
Obituary of Henry Cole. Times. 1882.