‘To learn or not to learn?’

Successive governments have attempted to set performance indicators that focus on graduates obtaining employment within 6 months of graduating. Also targets have been established over the past few decades for monitoring staying on and participation rates for 16 to 19 year olds. It might be useful to consider in more depth issues associated with student retention, achievement as well as some of the wider reasons of people who do not participate in education and training.

This is particularly important at a time of recession and high unemployment especially for young people currently at 22% (1st quarter of 2012). These issues are particularly important in technical and vocational courses/programmes that often attract fewer students. Student retention and achievement rates justifiably continue to be an important issue for colleges, training providers and universities. Obviously, colleges and universities wish to see all their students succeed and have value added to them through their studies and the associated learning opportunities and experiences afforded to them by their institutions.

The institutions are acutely aware how important retention and achievement data is in the determination of high institutional inspection grades, but concerns still persist regarding the validity, reliability and probity of the data and the process associated with the interpretation by inspectors and assessors for a particular institution. These concerns persist even with the introduction of nationally validated benchmarking data and the greater opportunities afforded by self-assessment reports.

**These allow colleges to articulate their own assessment of their performance in terms of retention and achievement drawing attention to contextual mitigating factors, reflecting their mission and recognising more accurately the nature of their student populations. Any identification or exploration of these concerns brings into play many key higher and further education issues. Each key issue (retention, achievement and non-participation) is inter-related to the other but for the purposes of clarification, here they will be considered separately.

There is no one major determining factor which causes a student to leave a course, and as such retention is a complex and multidimensional issue. There are many factors that may lead to withdrawal from a course/programme. The recent changes and in some cases the removal of benefits, grants and discretionary awards means some students are unable to continue their studies. Financial difficulties figure significantly in student withdrawal and drop-out. Students often carry inherited debts throughout their studies and a time comes when they can no longer afford to stay at college or university. Many attempt to obtain part-time work but find it increasingly difficult to balance the commitment that requires with the need for effective learning practices. Any member of an Access Fund Panel realises what very great sacrifices students of all ages are now making to return to study. Sadly, increasing numbers of students just cannot continue to accumulate further debt. Furthermore, the recent significant changes in higher education tuition fees can only serve to fully exacerbate the situation. Despite constant debate surrounding this, little recognition has been applied to the position of post-16 students, mainly in colleges of further education. The majority already has major debt, which will be continued and considerably increased by higher education studies.

The domestic situation of a student can change considerably and suddenly, often leading to a withdrawal from studies. Cultural and social pressures combined with seemingly all-important materialism can lead to complex and subtle forms of peer pressure. Many students find it increasingly difficult, especially if they are struggling financially, to maintain a supposed lifestyle that is extolled by the media and often by their employed friends. The pressures have increased in complexity over recent decades, particularly when considering younger students.

Some students manage to find employment and leave a course. Given the volatile and uncertain world of employment, one cannot blame them. Perhaps colleges and universities should celebrate the fact that their students have found work, whilst also studying. Hopefully those jobs will be secure and offer opportunities for further study and training and often the students will return to the colleges or universities to continue their studies whilst in employment. The existing uncertainties in the world of work and employment surely provide validation for resorting to work at times rather than study on the part of many students.

Another consideration regarding the dropout rate has to be the course itself. The wrong choice of course possibly arises from poor and inadequate guidance, advice and information, whether at school or from early contact with the institution. Honest broker and objective guidance is central to any institution’s recruiting activity. That guidance must not solely be of the highest order at entry but must continue during the on-programme study. If students realise they are on the wrong course then they should be offered honest and open guidance to alternatives, not only within the institution but also at other institutions. The learner must be the central priority and must not be subverted by institutional priorities. If inadequate support is given students will inevitably leave. This leaves a possibility of them feeling that their interests have not been well served by education institutions and could deter them from considering to return to study later. Finally the course must be fit for purpose for the learner’s purpose, more fully prepare them for employment and give them confidence that if a technical and vocational course is their choice it possess a parity of esteem with the academic courses at the same level.

Colleges and universities must do all they can to make certain that they improve their retention rate, primarily through continued support and guidance of their students. Equally, however, they must realise that many students will withdraw for reasons well beyond their control. Sadly, due to financial pressures, students will seek employment or feel that they cannot sustain useful study while carrying such large debts. The uncertainty of gaining future employment must also have an impact, so colleges and universities must understand and respect the reasons for students’ withdrawal. This involves careful consideration and management of these issues along with great care in articulation regarding self-assessment reports.

Unfortunately the media often pick up detail from league tables and refer to them as ‘flunk factors’ but this is too simplistic. They do not tell the true story. Behind every student withdrawal there lies a whole series of reasons. It is important that institutions understand that, but equally important that the members of the public do not read too much into these simplistic league tables. Moreover, politicians must not begin to introduce simplistic knee-jerk and punitive measures against institutions that, at face value, do not have high retention rates (see ** paragraph marked above). Institutions must be allowed opportunities to explain why the retention rates have reached their current levels. Improvements can be made, but there needs to be a realistic view taken that very often the determining factors for withdrawal are beyond the control of the institutions and also beyond the control of the individual students.

League tables abound for achievement and obviously colleges and universities want to see all their students succeed. However, many achievement issues are not picked up by the very narrow definition of achievement often used by the inspectors. The model continues to be very traditional. It is centred on full awards, time served ‘courses’ and there is an expectation that a student, once enrolled, will complete the qualification. Therefore, even accepting that a number of students will withdraw for the reasons given above, there are also complications about whether they will achieve any sort of recognition for the parts they have studied.

Increasingly many students wish to take part awards, often supported by their sponsors/employers. They do not wish to do a full award but pursue various parts of a programme of study, achieving a number of modules or units. The current way of recognising achievement most certainly does not fully recognise these transformations in student and sponsor expectation. For many reasons, often prominently financial, the employer may want to sponsor just a number of aspects of a particular programme of study. With increasing frequency, the learner of the future will enter study and leave and then return later and wish to see an accumulation of recognition of their achievements. They may not always want access to study on only time-served full awards and qualifications.

Very often colleges are heavily criticised for apparently low achievement rates when, within a certain programme of study, many of the students have gained significant proportions of that award. It truly is time for the funding methodology to recognise this change and most certainly for the inspectors to recognise part-achievement. This is not a reflection of failure by the student and/or the institution. It merely reflects the changing nature of demand from the student and also from their employer: demand which may be attributable to financial limitations on how large a chuck of study a student can afford to pay for at any time and/or the amount of time a student can spare for study alongside earning a living.
Increasingly, many programmes of study involve a great deal of work place learning and assessment e.g. engineering and construction studies. In this situation the student’s programme is experienced through a partnership between the college and the employer. Different parts of the learning and assessment will take place in either the college or the work place. This development is to be welcomed because it brings increasing authenticity to both the employer’s and the institution’s role. However too often the inspection framework only recognises achievement within the college. This narrow approach surely requires review and reform. This is a particularly important issue when considering apprenticeships and courses that offer significant work experience elements.

Again, the current situation reflects a very traditional model of teaching and learning matched also by the increasing obsession with time-served qualifications and awards. This is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, not only to learners but also to employers. Provision has to be more flexible, responsive and relevant and be available in small bites that will be funded and recognised as achievement even though it is part-achievement. When that learning and achievement is also embedded in sustained work place practice it has a validity which other context-less qualifications cannot ever contemporaneously demonstrate.

Another interesting aspect relates to the students who leave to get work. As mentioned earlier, the inspectors and assessors see this as the institution’s failure. This raises some very interesting issues about how to recognise achievement. If the student, for example, is studying a full-time course and is offered a job and leaves, they could then be sponsored by their employer to return to the same institution but to study for a part-time equivalent course. When the inspectors examine retention and achievement data they will not accept that a large number of the students on some programmes of study where employment prospects are buoyant have indeed succeeded. They have secured a job. This is possibly the ultimate indicator of success, but the colleges and universities are increasingly being criticised for apparently losing their students and not bringing them to a successful conclusion of their course. It really is quite a bizarre contradiction. Statistical data needs to be more refined to track student progressions and destinations.

It clearly is important that a fundamental review is taken of the notion of students’ success. Because of the recession uncertainties now exist within society and the increasing financial difficulties that students find themselves exposed to, they will increasingly return to study part-time or in flexible ways dictated by their own circumstances. The funding and inspection models operated must more fully recognise this changing pattern of part-award and a more extended period of study, albeit on an interrupted basis.

The current obsession with traditional qualifications and awards needs to be questioned. The accelerating knowledge and skill base demanded by world economic and technological developments raises questions about the validity of time served programmes of study. They are very often dated by the time the students complete and graduate from them. Consequently, employers may not see them as relevant to their needs.

Non Participating Individuals often referred to as Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEETS)
Inclusive learning and an inclusive society are currently highly publicised. Colleges have, for decades, played a major part in offering second chance opportunities to people and encouraging those who have not traditionally studied. They have a long and credible track record, only partly recognised by successive governments. The FE sector and its constituent colleges are committed to playing a major part in any government’s priorities for widening participation and inclusive learning. However, a degree of realism needs to be injected into the debate. Lifelong learning assumes that all people want to learn. This needs to be carefully analysed. There are many people who had opportunities in the past who have not taken up those opportunities for all kinds of reasons. They have their own lifestyle, they have a view about education and training or they possibly had bad experiences at school. Perhaps they feel their success in work and life does not merit them thinking of returning to study. Sadly, there are many for whom exclusion through disadvantage has been constant, but again one needs to think carefully about whether they are ‘thirsting’ to return to study. They need to be encouraged to return to study but it begs questions concerning what is on offer. If it is traditional provision it will not work. The existing curriculum offer needs to be urgently reformed with a wider range of courses particularly in the technical, commercial and vocational areas. For it to succeed people need to view it as relevant to their lives and work chances and recognise that it adds value to their existence (in these cases it may not be related to formal qualifications.) Again, these points reflect the concern that is prominent regarding the obsession with qualifications and their associated standards.

For lifelong learning to be successful, it has to be enjoyable, it has to be attractive and it has to add value to people’s lives. It must not focus solely on studying for a qualification – especially when job opportunities are limited or may not be available at this time of recession and austerity. There have to be measures that both prompt a return to study and also overcome the barriers that deter people from doing so.

First version of this article published in March 1999 in ‘t’ magazine.

An Equation I Cannot Balance – or is it just a paradox?

(A paradox is anything which offhand appears to be false, but is actually true; or which appears to be true but is actually false; or which is simply self-contradictory.)

Of many of the problems that occur within arithmetic and mathematics paradoxes are among the most appealing and instructive. Paradoxes abound in arithmetic and mathematics as evidenced by Eugene Northrop’s classic book (1). The equation I am considering at present is as follows: On one side the statement that each year the GCSE and GCE ‘A’ level mathematics results continue to get better; on the other side numerous reports proclaim declining standards in the subject in the country and most certainly when compared with other countries. Each year the government and its departments provoke a massive campaign of hype about the improving standards in mathematics and the increasing number of students taking GCE ‘A’ Mathematics and Further Mathematics. The number studying ‘A’ level has doubled in recent years to 77,000 with 11,600 taking Further Mathematics –BUT it must be said that the increase is from a woefully low base and when compared with many other countries is still very low both in terms of number and levels of achievement; but this is another example of how politicians manipulate statistics. So if you believe the evidence on this side of the equation all seems to be positive and rosy.

But on the other side of the equation there is a vast amount of quantitative and objective evidence from both national and international sources that articulates a very different picture. Couple this evidence with the continuing chorus from concerned employers, recruiting agencies, and college and university admissions tutors bemoan the parlous state of the mathematical competence of the majority of employees and entrants. Employers argue strongly that school/college leavers and university graduates lack mathematical skills and capability. This they argue is being more emphasised as a result of the rapid transitions in the workplace that increasingly require greater mathematical skills and understanding. One aspect of this can been seen in the changing nature of the workforce as the shift from manual and low- skilled jobs towards higher levels of skill continues and that requires mathematical capability, skills and knowledge. The level of understanding and ability of the majority of the population in the country to apply mathematical and numerical concepts is pitifully low and results an inability to cope with the requirements and challenges of the workplace of the future. These continuing concerns from the end-users of the education and training system are reinforced by a plethora of recent reports again restating the parlous and pathetic current state of mathematics in Britain and include the following:

  • Is the UK an Outlier? Published by the Nuffield Foundation (1).
  • Mathematical Needs. ACME. (2)
  • Wolf Report. (3)
  • Vorderman Report.
  • UK Home Learning College’s ‘Welcome Back to Learning ‘campaign.

These reports come up with a series of well rehearsed conclusions and solutions. The OECD and Nuffield Reports identify that a lower proportion of students post-16 study mathematics i.e. <20% when compared with other developed countries. Scotland has a higher percentage namely 50%. The OECD and Nuffield data and accompanying commentaries highlight that these other countries see the strategic importance of mathematics in their economies and conclude that Britain except Scotland does not. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland just 13% study ‘A’ level mathematics compared with over 70% in Japan and Taiwan. Some figures provide an insight into the problem e.g. approximately a cohort of 700,000 students pass through the national system each year. The majority do not study any further mathematical subjects after 16 and almost 50% have not even achieved a grade C at GCSE and remember the ongoing debates about what percentages merits a grade C!

One issue highlighted in a number of reports is that mathematics is not compulsory after 16 and that in the majority of countries surveyed mathematics is required in general and vocational education. Many of the reports cited above advocate that mathematics must be compulsory post 16 although they differ on what kind of mathematics should be taught; a classical approach to debates on education in this country – world class in talking but not taking firm and meaningful action. So the paradox for me is: which of these two conflicting sets of evidence is true? Is it just the government manipulating and massaging the statistics for political capital or are there more serious issues like grade and credential inflation. But the reality surely is that the country has major problems, so for me the evidence from these recent reports and reports going back decades is overwhelming and convincing. So, how can the annual circus of GCSE and GCE results are justified. I feel sorry for the students many of whom work hard only to see and read the kind of comments I have been making. What is needed is a full and open debate about the problems and then a root and branch reform of the subjects establishing programmes and examinations that are relevant and fit for purpose. The mathematical content of the programmes must prepare the students to understand and apply the principles of mathematics and numerical concepts in their future work or study.

(1) Northrop. E. P. Riddles in Mathematics. Pelican. 1944.
An International Comparison of Upper Secondary Mathematics by Ruddock. J. And Pepper. D. Of King’s College and Sturman. L and Ruddock. G. Of the NFER. December 2010.
‘Mathematical Needs.’ Two volumes: The Mathematical Needs of Learners and Mathematics in the Workplace and in HE. ACME.ISBN 978-0-85403-0 and 978-0-85403-895-4. June 2011.
‘Review of Vocational Education.’ Wolf Report. March 2011.
‘A world-class mathematics education for all our young people.’ Vorderman Report. August 2011.
UK Home Learning College’s ‘Welcome Back to Learning’ campaign. October 2011.

A Short History of the Early Development of Science Teaching

(This is a relatively short piece on the early development of science teaching in mainly England up until the mid-20th century. I cannot hope to do justice to all the individuals and organisations/institutions that contributed to its development. Science in some ways experienced a less tortuous and controversial development than technical education but was subjected to the same forms of resistance and prejudice that impeded its development. A great deal of detail reinforces much of what is written in the various chapters of this website and I have attempted to cross reference this wherever possible).

The need for the introduction of science into the secondary school curriculum was only really acknowledged during the nineteenth century. The impetus for this arose from the rapid advances in science made during this period and to the writings of such individuals as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)-(see biography on this website) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). These individuals argued strongly for the disciplinary and utilitarian values that the teaching of science would create. The universities up to the end of the 18th century largely neglected the teaching of the natural sciences. Of the very few University Professorships in the natural/physical sciences established in the 17th century the following ones can be noted. At Oxford the Sedleian Chair of Natural Philosophy in 1621, the Savilain Chair in Geometry in 1619 and in Astronomy in 1621. At Cambridge the only endowment was the Lucasian Chair in mathematics (1663). It should be noted that the key scientific discoveries were made by amateurs the majority of whom had not attended university. These included such individuals as Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), William Herschel (1792-1871), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) (educated at a dissenting academy in Daventry), James Watt and many more. As a result of this neglect and a fairly widespread realisation of the gap between educational provision and social need a number of philosophical and scientific societies were created across the country e.g. the Royal Society founded in 1660 (see biography on the Invisible College), the Society of Arts of London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce of industry founded in 1754 by William Shipley (1714-1803).

The Lunar Society, (see biography), founded in 1766 in Birmingham by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) included such members as Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), James Watt (1736-1819), Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795) and William Herschel (1792-1871) played an important part in disseminating scientific information in the Midlands. Another important institution was the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester founded in 1781 and included amongst its members John Dalton (1766-1844) and James Prescott Joule (1818-89). John Dalton was a tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy at the Manchester Academy one of the Dissenting Academies, (see biographies on this website) see his portrait below.

John Dalton
Benjamin Rumford (1753-1814) was an influential figure in founding the Royal Institution in 1799 in London which initially taught young men in the mechanical professions by way of ‘courses of philosophical lectures and experiments on the applications of science to the common purposes of life’. Rumford intended the Institution to train young men in the mechanical professions and the practical nature of the instruction was emphasised. After Rumford left and under the subsequent leadership of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and Michael Faraday the aims of the Institution fundamentally changed and the pioneering plans of Rumford for the instruction of young mechanics were abandoned. The Institution then transformed and became a research institution as well as providing the dissemination of scientific knowledge among the so-called more cultivated sections of the population. It also developed later a series of public lectures on science and the scientific discoveries of the day the best example being the Royal Institution Christmas lectures instigated by Faraday that still continue today. Even though the original plans of Rumford were regrettably never implemented the Royal Institution has made unique and valuable contributions to science and science education over the years especially in the early days of its existence. It was in many ways more influential than the Royal Society which was still seen as a cosy gentlemen’s club. A portrait of Michael Faraday is shown below.


Many organisations such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society flourished in many larger towns during the 19th century under a variety of titles. Some were merely scientific amusement clubs though others did provide scientific instruction and did act as a catalyst for higher education and the subsequent creation of the provincial universities which were more committed to science and technical education than Oxford and Cambridge. The role of these societies was highlighted at the British Association Meeting in 1879. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was established in the 1830s to bring science to the provinces. A number of scientific societies were also being established including those for geology (1807), astronomy (1820), zoology (1826), botany (1836), chemistry (1841) and physics (1874) all these were as you would expect, located in London (see biographies on website). However there were developments outside London. For example in the Midlands the Birmingham and Midlands Institute was founded in 1853 for the education of artisans and miners. The Institute comprised two main departments the first a General Department consisting of a library, museums of geology and natural history, records and archive sections and the administration of lectures on general scientific topics. The second was the School of Industrial Science department organising and delivering classes in chemistry, geology, mechanics and mineralogy all delivered with a very practical bias. Another good example outside the capital was the Halifax Literary and Philosophy Society founded in 1830 complemented by a separate Scientific Society founded in 1874 but there were many more in the larger towns e.g. Newcastle, Leeds. Liverpool etc.

The Working Men’s Clubs and the Peoples Colleges in Sheffield (founded in 1842) and London (founded in 1853) (see website) also contributed to the education of the working class including science and practical subjects. A notable figure in this movement was Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72) see his portrait below.


Another notable institution was Owens College, Manchester opened in 1851 and incorporated in 1871. From the start it had a scientific bias which had been created and maintained by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. It was granted a charter in 1880 and became the Victoria University. Four years later University College Liverpool joined Victoria and in 1887 Yorkshire College, Leeds was also included. These and other provisional universities and colleges e.g. Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle increasingly included science and technical subjects in their programmes. Other institutions representing science were created e.g. College of Chemistry founded in 1845 and became the Royal College of Chemistry under the patronage of the Prince Consort and awarded certificates and diplomas rather than degrees to students of all ages many employed in the chemical industries. The first professor was August Hoffmann (1818-1892) a distinguished German chemist. The college only operated as an independent and private body for a short time because of ongoing financial problems and in 1853 was taken over by the Government School of Mining and went through a whole series of name changes including the Royal School of Mines, The Normal School of Science and the Royal College of Science and eventually became part of Imperial College in 1907.

Other initiatives across the country included peripatetic lectures on Natural Philosophy an example being those given in Manchester by Samuel Kaye in 1743 that included lectures in physics and astronomy. Another example of the growing interest in the sciences is the following advertisement in the Manchester Mercury for 1762 stating that ‘A course of 20 lectures on Experimental Philosophy to be given at the late Angel Inn, Market Place, by James Ardenn on Natural History, Mechanics, Geometry, use of Globes, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics and Optics. These lectures and the large number of local societies that developed nationwide were usually supported by individual enterprise and subscriptions of members.

Another important set of contributions to the development of science teaching was that of the Mechanics’ Institutions movement. One of the earliest attempts to teach ‘popular science’ can be traced to John Anderson (1726-1796), (see biography of John Anderson and the Anderson Institution), who delivered a course of lectures in around 1760 on ‘Experimental Physics’ to an invited audience comprising tradesmen and mechanics in Glasgow. Anderson continued to be committed to the importance of teaching science and technical subjects and bequeathed his estate to found a university which would be based on science teaching for mechanics and artizans. George Birkbeck (1776-1841) was the first professor at the Anderson Institute, (see biography), who continued to deliver lectures and demonstrations to artizans and mechanics. The Glasgow Mechanics’ Institution was founded in 1823 and this eventually led to the creation of other Mechanics’ Institutions that so influenced and largely laid the foundations for the development of technical education and training in Britain.

One of the foremost advocates of popular education in the early 19th century was Henry Brougham (1778-1868) who wrote extensively on the importance of education for all. He founded and was the first president of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’ (see biographies on this website), and did much to popularise the Mechanics’ Institutions. The Institutions frequently combined into unions and exchanged resources such as books and scientific and technical equipment to assist travelling lecturers. The ‘Working Man’s Educational Union’ prepared sets of diagrams and charts on astronomical and scientific equipment. The Mechanics’ Institution movement made a massive contribution to the development of scientific and technical education. The movement greatly assisted the cause of scientific education during the first half of the 19th century. They not only provided though their existence and through the support of such people as John Anderson, George Birkbeck, Henry Brougham and Charles Knight an intellectual interest to the working man but also helped to spread some knowledge of science amongst a section of the population who would otherwise remained excluded and ignorant. As the history of technical education and training on this website has shown many such institutions were founded in the 19th century along with other similar institutions that provided instruction in the sciences and technical subjects to those involved in associated occupations in factories and workshops. Many went on to become, in the late 19th and early 20th century, technical colleges and universities.

Running parallel with the mechanics’ institutions movement were other developments including the creation of more philosophical societies and societies associated with the poor. Amongst the latter were the National Society founded in 1811 and the British and Foreign Schools Society founded in 1814. These societies with many supporters gradually developed to establish schools in nearly every town and village in the country but they only possessed the most rudimentary resources that precluded the teaching of science. Only the existing grammar and public schools were in any sort of position to offer science but in the majority of cases like the existing universities neglected the teaching of science preferring instead to focus on a classical curriculum. School science teaching had to wait until the subjects were sufficiently established and systematised and there were sufficient teachers who were aware and knowledgeable about the fundamentals of the subjects. One of the first examples of science teaching in schools was at the City of London School under the part-time tutorship of William Cook of Trinity College, Cambridge who taught chemistry and natural philosophy. The school was equipped with a range of apparatus including an air-pump, a condensing syringe, a lathe, a small amount of mercury and some glass ware. Later Thomas Hall was appointed in 1847 as a full-time chemistry teacher and the school became possibly the first to teach chemistry in the country. The pupils paid an extra seven shillings, (35p in today’s money) a term for these lessons – a considerable amount of money at the time. The Science and Art Department based in South Kensington awarded grants to schools who were teaching science and whose students sat their examinations. The term ‘Science School’ was at the time applied to any school that received a grant from South Kensington. Certain Mechanics’ Institutions received the grants and by 1867 there were 212 ‘Science Schools’ with 10,230 students. A typical village Mechanics’ Institution is shown below (Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes 1877).

Village Mechanics' Institution 1877. Yorkshire Union of Mechanics' Institutes.

Such schools were established after 1870 by the School Boards and recognised in 1872 by The Science and Art Department in order to respond to the increasing numbers of students from the larger urban areas staying on at school after 13 and for pupil teachers aged between 16 and 18. To further encourage the establishment of schools teaching science the Science and Art Department offered attendance grants from 1872 to those institutes who adopted schemes of work set out in the ‘Science and Art Directory’. This led to the creation of Organised Science Schools and laid the foundations for the traditional methods of science teaching in the country. The schools selected were not only ‘higher grade’ elementary schools but also many private and grammar schools which had accepted grants from the Science and Art Department to adopt a predominantly scientific curriculum. The regulations required a school of science to teach not less than thirteen hours a week to a compulsory course comprising not more than five hours of mathematics along with chemistry, technical drawing and practical geometry. The remaining ten hours included two for manual work and two for mathematics – the curriculum was most certainly skewed too much to science with little left for other important subjects – the pendulum had swung too far the other way! Art was in many cases omitted and very scant regard was paid to the teaching of languages. The only experimental science subjects were physics and chemistry, and the biological subjects were not even mentioned in the teaching schemes. In addition to these weaknesses the teaching of science was predominately by rote and the acquisition of facts and figures was emphasised that could be easily reproduced in the examinations. Physics and Chemistry figured largely in the curriculum for boys with little or no Biology. That was taught to the girls along with Botany! Interestingly to note that a further regulation was introduced in 1917 which at last recognised the ludicrous situation of the absence of education for girls in science particularly the physical sciences. The regulation stated: ‘The instruction in science must include practical work by the pupils. For girls over 15 domestic science, as needlework, cookery, laundry work, housekeeping and household hygiene may be substituted partially or wholly for science and for mathematics other than arithmetic’. Note the use of the word may!

The Society of Arts continued to promote and encourage the interest in the practical applications of science through its publications, exhibitions and the awards of prizes for inventions. In 1852 the Society of Arts founded a Union of Mechanics’ Institutions and proposed an examination system in order to qualify for membership and in spite of a very slow start, (only one candidate presented themselves in 1855), the system finally became established and a wide range of subjects were examined including botany, chemistry, mathematics, mechanics and physiology. The examinations were intended for students who had left school and were at least 15 years of age. The Society even published guidance annually for students entitled ‘How to learn and What to Learn’. The action by the Society of Arts of promoting examinations galvanised both Cambridge and Oxford to create the local examinations, (see history of technical and commercial examinations on this website). These examinations instigated in 1857-58 were intended to meet the needs of the so-called middle class schools+. The Schools Inquiry Commission published in 1868 recommended that endowed schools should offer external examinations and tests. In 1873 the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board, or Joint Board was created for the purpose of examining those schools who sent large numbers of students to these older universities. The subsequent development of examinations further advanced the development of school and technical education. Progress was as stated in the histories still relatively slow compared with other countries and the teaching of science and technical subjects took much longer to become established and embedded in the mainstream curricula of schools, colleges and universities.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 also reinforced the importance of science as an essential and crucial element in general education and for the first time really highlighted the fundamental weaknesses in the scientific and technical education system compared with our continental counterparts and the superiority of their technologists and technicians. The growing demands that science should be introduced into the school system resulted in the creation of the Department of Science and Art for the ‘encouragement of science and art’. In 1854 Thomas Huxley, John Tynall (1820-1893) and Michael Faraday called for urgent action to introduce science into the existing school system. These important calls were reinforced by other influential figures like Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was by far the most prominent person to advocate the importance of introducing science and technical subjects into the educational system through a series of seminal lectures and articles delivered during the 1860s and 70s (1).

The founding of University of London in 1826 was a seminal point which enabled science to become established, if initially precariously, in the higher education institutions. A Faculty of Science was established at London University and degrees in science were first awarded in 1860 but the university already had a reputation for teaching natural science and in many ways led the way in science education in universities. The first university chemistry laboratories were founded around 1829 at Glasgow University and University College London. Eventually Cambridge established the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1851 and Oxford followed in1853 with the Honours School of Natural Science and these added impetus to the introduce science into the curriculum of secondary schools. However the number of students wishing to study science at the older universities was very small and it was not really until the founding of the Cavendish Laboratory at Oxford in 1871 – Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) , shown below was the first professor that numbers increased at the university.

maxwellIt is interesting to note that Scotland led the way yet again when William Thomson (1824-1907) created the first example of any sort of university physics laboratory in 1846 at Glasgow College even though it did not have any formal university recognition.

Records are fairly sparse on the development of the teaching of science and technical subjects and the majority of our knowledge can be found in the Reports of the various Royal Commissions on Education which blossomed after 1851 i.e. after the Great Exhibition. One of these looked between 1861 and 1864 at the so-called nine great public schools and identified the domination of classical subjects such as Greek and Latin. Elementary arithmetic and mathematics was taught in all nine whilst Natural Science was only taught in Rugby and Winchester and to a lesser extent at Eton. The Commissioners highlighted the almost exclusion of Natural Science to the upper classes in England (note the language which reflects the class structure yet again). The commissioners go on to say ‘that it was a state of affairs which revealed a plain defect and great practical evil’ and that Natural Science should be taught where practicable and should include two branches namely one comprising chemistry and physics, and the other comparative physiology and natural history. The 1864 Royal Commission was appointed to undertake a very comprehensive inquire into the state of education given in secondary schools. This has become known as the Schools Inquiry Commission and reported in 1868 and highlighted not unsurprising that very schools offered science and even if they did only 18 devoted as much as 4 hours a week to the subject. The Commissioners strongly advocated that science as a subject was important but added the caveat that it could be best taught at the beginning exploiting simple observational techniques in such subjects as Botany and gradually build up to the teaching of Chemistry and Physics – a very interesting, insightful and worthy recommendation.

The Devonshire Commission, (full title: The Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science), provided a very detailed survey of science teaching at the end of the 19th century. The sixth report published in 1895 after analysing the difficulties of introducing science into the school curriculum e.g. resources both human and physical, made many worthy recommendations. The two main ones were that science should be introduced into all public and endowed schools and carry a substantial proportion of time throughout the school course and should not be less than six hours a week on average and that school laboratories should be constructed to supply high quality accommodation for practical work in Physics and Chemistry. This was a seminal report and after its publication at long last witnessed the beginning of the widespread introduction of Physics and Chemistry into the curriculum of boys’ schools and Botany into that of girls’ schools – this ludicrous discrimination defeats any rational explanation!

With the growth of the middle class during the 19th century more boarding schools were established and the curriculum began to include more science and mathematics. An example was at Uppingham School under the headship of Edward Thring who between 1853 and 1887 introduced optional subjects including chemistry and other natural sciences. Canon Wilson headmaster at Rugby and Clifton College also did some pioneering work in introducing science but as always such initiatives were few and far between and never realised the necessary critical mass – it mirrors the situation in the development of technical and commercial education and training – a few insightful and progressive individuals fighting the prejudice of the church and the upper classes.

In 1899 the Science and Art Department was merged into the Board of Education. The Organised Science Schools were discouraged and the new secondary schools were required to adopt the curriculum model operated in the existing public and grammar schools – science was not the main focus.

The First World War inevitably raised the importance of science in the eyes of the general public and in 1916 the government appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of J. J. Thomas to enquire into the position of Natural Science in the educational system in Britain especially in schools and universities. The ‘Thomson Report’ as it became known was published in 1918 under the title ‘Natural Science in Education’ and sadly but not unsurprisingly many of its worthy recommendations were not implemented. Neverthe less the Report did bring about some important developments namely the Higher School Certificates, more advanced sciences were created and the general quality of text books was improved. In 1933 the Board of Education appointed a consultative committee under the chairmanship of William Spens but its conclusions and recommendations made little reference to science education or teaching. The science teacher associations and unions were very critical of the Spens Report in regard to science. At least the Cyril Norwood Report published in 1943 looking at the curriculum and examinations in secondary schools did invest more effort and time on the teaching of science. Too often as we have seen in the history of technical education many of these Commissions and Consultative Committees worthy as they may be usually produce little of any real lasting improvement. So often they are just a way for the government of the day tokenistic ally attempting to show they are interested and committed to long term improvement knowing full well the country does not have the resources or the will be bring about meaningful change. They also usually cherry pick the recommendations that confirm their own policies.

However it must be said that since the beginning of the 20th century there has been a gradual increase in the quality of the resources invested in science teaching e.g. in terms of financial, human (teachers and technical support staff), physical (equipment and accommodation). More science subjects have been offered in schools at GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level i.e. separate sciences both in the physical and biological disciplines and general science and these have been open to both sexes! Courses in the sciences and their application were developed in colleges via the Joint Committees i.e. Ordinary/Higher Cerficates and Diplomas along with a multitude of science related technical and vocational subjects and offered primarily by the City and Guilds of London Institute and a number of Scientific and Technical Professional Bodies (see this website for more detail). Universities too greatly expanded their provision as their numbers increased developing science programmes at undergraduate and post graduate levels.

In 1945 the Education Act of 1944 came into force raising the school- leaving age and extended both secondary and technical education system.

It is fascinating to see the similarities between the development of science and technical education. The development was slow both in relative and absolute terms when compared with other countries on the continent and America. Both sectors were slow to develop and can be characterised as ad hoc and random and frequently in spite of real opportunities afforded by far sighted individuals never attained the necessary critical mass to become a national movement – that came much later and even today has major defects in its structures and management. Even more striking is the involvement and influence of a few remarkable individuals such as John Anderson, Henry Armstrong, George Birkbeck, Henry Brougham, Thomas Huxley, Lyon Playfair (1818-1898)) and Joseph Priestley (see this website for biographies of these individuals).

+ Middle Class Schools – private boarding or day schools founded by the National Society after 1838 and were designed to serve the needs of the middle and lower classes. After 1869 many middle class schools were merged with the more ancient grammar schools by the Endowed Schools Commission (1869-74) and the Charity Commission (1874-1902).

(1) Huxley. T. ‘Science and Education’ Essays by Thomas Huxley. Macmillan and Co. London 1905.
(2) Bernal. J. D. ‘Science and Industry in the 19th Century.’ Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1953.
(3) Meadows. J. ‘The Victoria Scientist.’ The British Library. ISBN 0 7123 0894 6. 2004.
(4) Adamson. J. W. A Short ‘History of Education’. Cambridge 1919.
(5) Hole. J. ‘Essay on History and Management of Literary, Scientific and Mechanics’ Institutions’. London 1853.
(6) Sadler. M. ‘Evening Continuation Schools in England and Elsewhere’. Manchester. 1907.
(7) Various editions of The School Science Review. ASE.

The Importance of the Skills Agenda in Rebalancing the Economy

The current global recession and the likelihood of a second major downturn have highlighted in many developed and emerging economies the need to fundamentally re-evaluate the way they manage their economies. Such comprehensive analyses will require a total rethink of how a country’s economy is balanced not only between the private and public sectors but also between wealth generating industries of manufacturing production and service industries particularly those devoted to finance. The issues associated with this essential and urgent re-evaluation will impact on many interconnected elements. The solutions must be radical and based on long term strategies and freed as far as possible from political interference and short-termism. Empty political rhetoric and dogma will impede the necessary reforms and no doubt maintain the current vested interests.

Pivotal to all the reviews and subsequent economic reforms will be the importance of vocational education, training and careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) at all stages of the education system i.e. the creation of a comprehensive skills agenda. Without major reforms of education and training any attempt to rebalance the economy will fail. Some of the key issues that must be addressed to create an effective skills agenda include:

  • Develop more valid, relevant and up to date Labour Market Intelligence systems (LMI)
  • Create effective, impartial and ongoing CIAG in schools, colleges, private providers and universities
  • The recognition once and for all of the importance of technical, commercial and vocational education and training and to create parity of esteem with the so-called academic subjects
  • To recognise and develop long term strategies to deal with the destructive impact of structural youth unemployment
  • Establish comprehensive programmes of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for people in work with a major focus on transferable and higher skills
  • Develop valid and relevant programmes of technical, commercial and vocational education and training with appropriate providers containing meaningful work based elements including sandwich programmes
  • Develop stronger links with employers at all stages of the educational and training process
  • Develop flexible apprenticeship frameworks that truly match the requirements of the labour market and more effectively address the supply and demand equation
  • Insist on the promotion of a more positive and informed image of science and technology in the mass media.

In summary a new paradigm for the skills agenda is required not just for education and training but for the whole economy and the industries of which it is composed. Clearly different countries will require different solutions. As an example Britain has to urgently rebalance and rebuild its economy and devise effective education and training provision to tackle the unacceptable level of youth unemployment.

Its economy is totally skewed to the financial sector and consumerism and will require a fundamental rethink on a wide range of issues including its economy and education and training systems. Britain’s economy is currently based on very weak and unreliable foundations i.e. financial services and consumerism. The financial system is about short term speculation (basically a culture of gambling) to maximise profits and generate massive bonuses for the few instead of long term investment in research and development and encouraging productive and manufacturing activities. The consumerist free led market is failing Britain and it is essential that the country moves quickly from the current obsessed consumerist society to one that is a dynamic manufacturing and productive nation. This is the time to leave behind the lazy politics of highly dubious reliance on a ‘credit cow’ attitude to financial services and base thinking on a clearer, more long-term vision of new industries to be prioritised for the future. Part of this is to turn the model of the fast buck pantomime of ‘Dragons Den’ into national support and industrial development prioritising focus on new productive industries related to the country’s infrastructure and real problems e.g. new housing and public transport technologies, energy production, transformation of waste recycling, water efficiency techniques, use of ICT to prolong the independence of an ageing population.

Young people deserve a more inspiring vision from their elders of the economy for their futures and they should be part of its reshaping. For too many generations they have borne the punishing effects on their prospects from their elders’ abysmal judgements on the economy and jobs. Unfortunately the hostile and confrontational approach presented by such programmes as ‘The Apprentice’ is a massively misleading approach to promote, understand, motivate and encourage people to participate in such important training activities. In addition the mass media have done little to provide role models that promote manufacturing and practical professions in a positive light.

In these times yet again, youth unemployment presents a particular challenge to this country. During the mid 1900s many school leavers found low skilled and poorly paid jobs and moved relatively easily from one job to another and in spite of this exploitative and unacceptable culture youth unemployment was relatively low. Later in the 1970/80s youth unemployment increased significantly and numerous short term programmes operated by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) were established but with very little long term impact. Since then the level of unemployment has in many ways become an accepted fact with certain regions of Britain having high levels of unemployment or underemployment. Successive generations of people have never worked or had opportunities to participate in further study. Another sad fact is that the low skills mentality continued and has been unsatisfactorily addressed by successive governments. Skills shortages and gaps have persisted for a number of decades but with little effort to resolve the low skills equilibrium coupled with persistent low levels of productivity and efficiency. It will take at least a generation to bring about sustained improvements in education and training. We can have numerous national committees and commissions looking at skills and educational reforms but if the fundamental problems are not identified and actioned however painful that may be to politicians nothing will happen – no pain no gain!

Perhaps the current situation, if managed carefully, coupled with an all party political consensus could bring about a long term solution. Political parties need to be weaned away from their commitment to support the financial world and to radically change the basic hostility and indifference towards manufacturing. This coupled with sustained investment into technical, commercial and vocational education and training, will present major challenges to the political parties. I fear in spite of what the politicians say about a radical reform of the financial sectors little will change. Sadly the current and future governments will continue to be beholdened and besotted with the banking and financial services which have shown themselves to be basically banksters, gamesters, fraudsters, manipulators, looters and financial terrorists in pin stripes.

Harsh words and judgements, perhaps, but since the 1990s the real global economy has been subverted by a fictitious and ghost-like economy. Widespread derivative trading, mis-selling, libor rigging and massive manipulation of global markets by this fictitious and largely unaccountable culture has exposed the vulnerability of capitalism as it is operated at present. A long as the country (and the US) are wedded to the political – military/multi-national corporations  complex we are doomed!

Shortened version first published on the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development Website Autumn 2011


Click on knowledge_portal then click on e-zine

In 1994 4.7 million people were employed in Britain in manufacturing whilst in 2009 the figure was 2.6 million.

Extra footnote
A number of informed commentators and financial experts state that the maximum level of dependence for any country on financial services including banking should not exceed 4%. Above this level the economy becomes unstable. Britain has currently a 10% dependency level e.g. in terms of number employed and its contribution to GDP and this largely explains its current massive financial difficulties. In order to achieve a more acceptable value the government will need to take some drastic and unpopular decisions which it is highly unlikely to do. The long standing love affair between successive governments and the City of London has created a cultural of cronyism and legalised bribery that is too embedded into the British establishment to be changed. So far, (autumn 2012), 160,000 people in the financial services and banking have been made redundant but this still represents a too small a contribution to what is required to rebalance the economy.

Some definitions:

General skills: the transferable skills which can be used across occupational groups. These include key skills.

Vocational skills: the specific ‘technical’ skills needed to work within an occupation or occupational group.

Job specific skills: include local functional skills (e.g. operating specific pieces of equipment) or employer wide skills (e.g. in-house quality standards or specific working methods).

Employability relates to the breadth and depth of an individual’s generic and vocational skills, but not their job specific skills.

Skills shortages exist where there is a real lack of adequately skilled individuals available in the accessible labour market.

Skills gaps exist where employers feel that their existing workforce have lower skill levels than necessary to meet their business needs and objectives; or where new entrants to the labour market are apparently trained and qualified for occupations but still lack a variety of employment/business skills.

Recruitment difficulties exist in addition to skills shortages and gaps and include: poor recruitment practices, negative image/perception of the industry, low remuneration and/or poor terms and conditions of employment and weak IAG systems e.g. in schools/colleges and universities.


Examinations and testing are an essential and important element in education and training however they have now assumed a damaging and disproportionate influence on the examination system. The introduction of frequent tests (SATs) and the publication of league tables further distort and perturbs the system. Add to this the annual hysteria and hype by the press and media when the examination results are announced again indicates the current obession with and over importance attached to examination and test results.

Examinations have, whether we like it or not, become a major part of the education and training landscape. As a result the Education system in Britain is now dominated by the pursuit of formal qualifications and state-driven tests which massively influences the teaching and learning process. Sadly they now dominate the education system and bring with them a number of negative consequences and  dangers such as:

  • The regard of examinations as an end rather than a means
  • The pressure on students and their parents producing a harmful precocity
  • An over-estimation, in judging institutions and teachers, on examination successes
  • The negative impact of league tables on institutions and teachers
  • Grade inflation – commentators say this happens when the pass marks appear to increase each year – but standards do not either remaining unchanged or even declining
  • The danger of credential inflation i.e. the belief that as more candidates enter for qualifications the qualifications could become devalued
  • The influence of ‘bad examinations’ on teaching and learning
  • Examiners and the awarding bodies treating the whole enterprise as a ‘hard nosed business’  Too often awarding bodies are now driven by the accountants where the bottom line is the most important part of the business . A number of the examining/awarding bodies are charities and yet are operated as if they are for-profit organisations and their CEOs are paid very high salaries inspite of being a charity.
  • The obsession with frequent testing and the resultant ‘teaching to the test syndrome’ that deflects and diverts the teachers from the real purpose of education
  • Continuous and time consuming assessment regimes, driven by paper-based tests have created massive evidence bases which now dominate the examination system.
  • The assessment and examination system, (industry?), has become a bureaucratic box ticking culture underpinned by an over prescriptive and micro-controlled regime largely driven by the government.
  • The examination and testing system has now become an expensive, unwieldy and distorting bureaucracy .

Certificate of Pre- Vocational Education (CPVE) 1985-early 1990s.

A number of factors brought about the development of the CPVE namely:

  • The rise in youth unemployment in the late1970 and early1980s
  • Students entering FE colleges who were unqualified for, or uncommitted to, the coursed offered by these institutions
  • The increased number of students staying on at school 6th forms
  • Issues associated with what were the relevant courses to offer to this increasing number of students with unfocussed intentions whether for study or career
  • The apparent wish by successive governments to link education more to the world of work.

The basic aims of CPVE were:

  • To assist the transition from school to adulthood by further equipping young people with the basic skills, experiences, attitudes, knowledge and personal and social competence required for success in adult life including work
  • To provide individually-relevant educational experience which encourages learning and achievement
  • To provide young people with recognition of their attainments through a qualification which embodies national standards
  • To provide opportunities for progression to continuing education, training and/or work.

(A typical set of worthy aims but as always the devil was in the detail, interpretation and ultimately in its implementation).

The development of pre-vocational frameworks and full-time qualifications such as the Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education (CPVE) was part of the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) –see biography on this website. The Further Education Unit (FEU) was instrumental in the creation and subsequent development of CPVE through its seminal publication of 1979 ‘A Basis for Choice,’ now often referred to as the ABC study. CPVE grew out of the FEU-devised framework for a year pre-vocational courses. The FEU proposed that such courses should be based on a common core, designed around 12 broad aims to be achieved through a range of ‘observable performances to be expected of students and learning experiences which they should be offered’. The programme comprised the core, that occupied 60% of the course and the remaining 40% was taken up by vocational and job specific studies. The essential features were:

  • The curriculum was a framework as opposed to a syllabus
  • A set of ten core areas (with 200-plus core competences to be satisfied): personal and career development, industrial, social and environmental studies, communication,
  • social skills, numeracy, science and technology, information and technology, creative development, practical skills and problem solving
  • Vocational studies from five broad areas – to be taken in modules in ascending levels-introductory, exploratory, and preparatory. Vocational studies and the core to occupy 74% of the time and are to be integrated for 20% of the time
  • Additional studies-to occupy no more than 25% of the time. Students may supplement their CPVE course here in any way they wish. Many students used this time for traditional examinations such as GCSE
  • Work experience- real or simulated. An evaluation conducted in 1988 of student perceptions showed this element to be the most popular element of the course but the other core skills were heavily criticised particularly the science and technology*
  • Formative and summative profiling (of the core competences)
  • Experiential learning
  • Negotiation
  • Counselling

*causes cited poor teaching, teachers found it difficult to find material that interested the students, the students themselves could not see the purpose of these subjects

The City and Guilds (CGLI) developed the proposal and created the CGLI 365 course which closely followed the ABC framework. The DES in 1980 published a policy statement Examinations 16-18:A Consultative Paper, (Macfarlane Report), when they announced their preference for the CGLI/FEU framework as a national 17+ examination over the Certificate of Extended Education (CEE)* that had been proposed by the earlier Keohane report. At the time CEE was strongly supported by teachers and 6th formers.

After this endorsement the new qualification was developed jointly by CGLI and BTEC and became known as the CPVE. The course was quickly taken up by schools and colleges many of which had offered the CGLI 365 course. Sadly BTEC had other ideas about pre-vocational qualifications and within a year of the launch of CPVE in 1985 were offering they own vocationally specific ‘First Certificates/Awards’. These awards were seen by many 16+ students as more attractive because, rightly or wrongly, they thought that better progression routes existed via the BTEC Nationals when compared with the broadly based CPVE courses. This was a classic example of destructive competition that so often happens when there is an absence of a common foundation framework for one year courses which creates duplication of certification and problems associated with progression at 17+.

CPVE and TVEI were specific programmes to more easily facilitate collaboration between colleges and schools through provision of link courses and shared resources. The CPVE was introduced for students who were undecided about which vocational area they should study and were perceived as being unready to enter employment and were labelled in typically disparaging English cultural fashion as low achieving. These latter comments again highlight the way successive governments perceive learners who are outside the academic qualifications! In March 1984 the Joint Board had tried to define the CPVE target population in more civilised terms namely:

  • Young people who after completing compulsory schooling, will benefit from further education as a preparation for adult life, including the world of work
  • Do not wish at this stage to proceed to GCE ‘A’ level study
  • Are interested in vocational training or work but are not yet committed to, or qualified for, a particular occupation.

In 1985/86 CPVE student numbers were 18,000 and in 1987/88 the numbers were 36,000 with 70% from comprehensive schools. However CPVE began to decline in popularity in 1990 with less than 30,000 registrations out of a year cohort of 400,000 (7.5%), the decline being most marked in colleges and less so in schools. Colleges preferred to opt for BTEC First Awards capitalising on the progression opportunities that BTEC National and Higher Awards offered. Schools offered the CPVE to bolster their 6th form numbers!

The demise of the CPVE was caused by a number of competing forces. Sadly division and stratification were manifest from its inception. Initially all the participating bodies bought into the development and the need to create a rationalisation of provision at 17+ but cracks soon appeared which reflected the weaknesses inherent in a voluntary philosophy so prevalent in the English education and training system. The RSA was the first to withdraw stating educational and financial reasons and then went on to produce its own pre-vocational and vocational qualifications. BTEC developed as mentioned above their own First Awards in direct competition to the CPVE. The FEU was left in the middle and voiced their concerns about the behaviour and so-called entrepreneurial role of the awarding bodies (1). As so often happens in education and training developments the problems are both educational and economic especially when the market is introduced into the landscape and this applies to the awarding bodies’ and their markets, as much as with the other key players. (I fear that the awarding bodies are even more market orientated now and some seem to equate education and training and its assessment to a hardnosed business!)

One fact that the CPVE highlighted was the important issue of progression. It did not offer clear opportunities as say other vocational awards did whether prevocational or vocational e.g. BTEC Firsts or CGLI foundation qualifications, and this represented a fundamental weakness. Also employers were reluctant to endorse the qualification or to employ students who had gained the CPVE as well as college admission tutors. But even so it was a brave and worthy attempt to offer a broad based qualification which was supported by many teachers in schools and colleges who enthusiastically tried to make the CPVE gain credibility and be recognised.

‘CPVE- Confusion or Deception.’ FEU 1985
Green. P. ‘The History and Development of CPVE.’ In Chitty.C. ‘Post-16 Education.’ISBN 0-7494 0097 8. Kogan Page Ltd. 1991.
‘CPVE in Action.’ FEU. 1985.
‘Progression from CPVE.’ FEU 1987
The Certificate of Extended Education (CEE) was basically a teacher-devised sequel to the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and was a subject-based course and lacked any real vocational focus.

General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) 1992-2007.

(GNVQs were introduced in September 1993 after a one year pilot).

GNVQs developed as a result of a complex set of industrial and political interactions and it was triggered by the CBIs concerns about the effectiveness of NVQs. The government picked up these concerns and accepted that vocational education and training needed reform and improvement. The White Paper Education and Training in the 21st Century, published in May of 1991, expressed an intention to establish ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational education and training (how many times have we heard that intention!). The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) in 1991 were given the remit to commission the development of the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) which were to be unit based qualifications. In addition they were to be a broad- based vocational education relevant to a wide range of occupational areas of work. GNVQs derived from NVQs and built upon approaches to learning brought about by the vocational initiatives of the 1980s e.g. BTEC and TVEI. They were to be initially based on ten knowledge areas and introduced into schools and colleges, with another five areas of development to be included later. They were to be taught mainly full- time alongside GCSEs and GCE ‘A’ levels. Unfortunately the specifications made the assumption that there would be limited work experience and any active modes of learning would be through projects, assignments and where opportunities existed limited work experience.

The initial consultation documents stated the purpose of the GNVQ qualifications as follows:

  • Support the establishment of a coherent, flexible and fair qualifications framework that promotes individual development and national targets;
  • Ensure assessment is valid, reliable and free from avoidable barriers;
  • Promote purposeful qualifications which meet the full range of needs while avoiding unnecessary duplication and overlap;
  • Clarify the relationships between qualifications in different families.

Their creation gave rise to the three track system in England and Wales i.e. based on the so-called academic ‘A’ levels, the GNVQs (mainly full-time) and the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) mainly studied in the workplace by employees and trainees. Scotland had a similar system e.g. Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs), General Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVVQs) and the Highers. The qualifications were developed to be an alternative pathway of progression both to Further/Higher Education and work.

GNVQs were designed to incorporate the essential features of NVQs and could be seen as an extension of the NVQ model. In addition they were influenced by earlier and existing qualifications CPVE and BTEC. The student outcomes were given in terms of ‘statement of achievement’ similar in nature to the NVQ ‘statement of competence.’ GNVQS drew heavily on the theory and practice of competence-based education and training and hence was an assessment led-innovation.

The basic design model was configured on six elements namely: assessment outcomes and procedures, core skills development, grouping of units, knowledge acquisition and portfolio compilation. Therefore in summary they would provide the basic skills and an understanding of the underlying principles in a vocational area and the award was achieved with a range of core skills. There were three levels namely Foundation (level 1), Intermediate (level 2 – equivalent to GCSE) and Advanced (level 3 – equivalent to GCE ‘A’ level). All the GNVQs were based on a number of units which were assessed separately and awarded credits towards the achievement of the qualification. GNVQ unlike NVQs did not attempt to develop directly occupational competence but rather to achieve a foundation of skills, knowledge and understanding that would underpin a range of occupations. The intention together with the work place NVQs would become the primary provision for vocational education and training.

During 1991 the NCVQ worked with the major vocational awarding bodies e.g. CGLI, BTEC and RSA the national education agencies and government departments drafting the criteria for the GNVQs and the specifications for the first five broad vocational areas. The frameworks allowed considerable flexibility of delivery as the specifications did not pre-define a syllabus or learning programme but only the expected outcomes. There was no fixed time period for the award as individual differences between students was recognised and this as was particularly helpful to adult learners who could study part-time at a college whilst working and also undertake open or private study. The ideal was that GNVQs would offer a genuine alternative to ‘A’ levels for students who preferred the more flexible and active modes of learning and that the programmes had a more vocational relevant focus. A number of commentators observed that GNVQ allowed the students to take greater responsibility for their own learning. This contrasted with the more traditional approach which favoured a much narrower focus on learning and emphasised ‘learning about rather than learning how to. They further argued that these approaches were valued by employers and FE/HE institutions and allowed the use of flexible and efficient learning modes and made effective use of teacher time and physical resources.

Advanced GNVQ (level 3) provided access to HE as well as a foundation for further education or training and employment. The standard was comparable to GCE ‘A’ and ‘AS’ level. One vocational unit was equivalent to one sixth of an ‘A’ or one third of an ‘AS’. Therefore a GNVQ level 3 was awarded on 12 vocational units that was equivalent to 2 GCE ‘A’ levels. Also the students were required to achieve three core skills. The 12 vocational units comprised eight mandatory units in a chosen vocational area plus four optional units chosen from a given list which extended the depth of the mandatory units and could involve more specialised applications. The mandatory units covered the basic fundamental skills, principles and processes that reflected the student’s particular chosen vocational area but also offered the opportunity to gain an insight into related occupations.

Intermediate GNVQ (level) mirrored the Advanced GNVQ but based on six units and obviously less demanding and was usually offered as a one year full-time course. Core skills and additional units were also available at this level. Progression from the Intermediate GNVQ was to Advanced GNVQ, NVQ at level 2 or 3 (depending on the occupational area) and employment.

Core Skills was a new and important feature of the GNVQs and presented many challenges to the designers, teachers and students throughout the development of the GNVQs. There were to be six core skills namely: application of number more often referred to as numeracy, communication, information technology, personal skills, problem solving and competence in a modern foreign language. The core skills of application of number, communication and information technology were introduced in September 1992 and those of a modern foreign language during the 1992/93 session. The other core skills were not introduced but were piloted for introduction in 1993. Work was also underway to extend the framework to the higher levels e.g. 4 and 5 but this did not materialise but taken over by other developments with the qualification and curriculum framework QCF) which interestingly continues even today.

The Labour government announced in 1990 that GNVQs would be discontinued and replaced by so-called vocational GCSEs and ‘A’ levels. It seemed to many of us that GNVQs were airbrushed out of history and yet again a worthy and potentially promising programme to establish parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications and to raise the profile of vocational education and training was lost. Again it was undermined by political interference and the continuing obsession of the gold standard of GCE ‘A’ level (see pen portrait on this website). Many politicians and academics constantly criticised the GNVQs particularly the assessment regimes, wishing for the more formal and traditional forms of examining. Also it should be noted that GNVQs were designed exclusively by the NCVQ (a government agency) who had a strong commitment to a particular assessment methodology which was against formal examinations and required very comprehensive outcome specifications.

GNVQs were taken up relatively rapidly by schools and colleges and demonstrated the need for an alternative to traditional qualifications e.g. GCSE and GCE ‘A’ levels. In 1994/95 there were 250,000 students registered on GNVQ programmes. Their introduction did increase the staying on rate post 16 and did increase progression rates e.g. many students progressed from foundation to intermediate and then onto the advanced GNVQ. The numbers were never great when compared with the traditional offering but nevertheless could have been, if they had been more fully supported by government and academics could have created a broader more enlightened curriculum and engendered parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications.

Many who had attempted to make the programmes work in spite of their complexity and additional workload particularly associated with their management still felt GNVQ could ultimately develop into a valuable qualification but it was not to be. I chaired the national advisory committee for the GNVQ science awards and presided over an influential group of employers from scientifically based companies, industrialists, teachers and representatives from scientific professional bodies. At one meeting totally unannounced we were informed by a very senior person from the Qualification Curriculum Authority (QCA) that he felt such advisory groups served little or no purpose and were to be disbanded! Surely if one is attempting to create a respected new qualification one needs the support and guidance of employers and professional bodies but obviously the powers at the time were not committed to the success of GNVQ. Right from the beginning the development of GNVQs looked and worked with industry, external organisations and the local community that were related to their vocational area of study as a source of reference and ongoing support and guidance. (It is important to note that QCA was created by the merger of the NCVQ and the SAA and was very much focussed on the academic qualifications and their management of the GNVQs reflected that bias).

The awards were eventually phased out completely in 2007 and were replaced by vocational GCSEs and ‘A’ levels – that will be another interesting development to look at in a couple of years!

The Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) 1983- 1997.

The Technical and Vocational Initiative (TVEI) represented a dramatic departure from the education policy conducted by successive governments in Britain since the Second World War. It tried to address the deficiency in the school curriculum namely the absence of any meaningful vocational content. This particularly was a major concern with the high level of youth unemployment in the 1880s which has heightened the debate about the growing irrelevance school education for many young people who felt the curriculum did not prepare them for work. Employers too had over many years argued that the school curriculum should be more about employability and preparing young people for work. The debate included the need to introduce vocational subjects into the curriculum. The initiative aimed to influence and encourage schools to adopt a more vocationally orientated curriculum through a system of financial and other incentives operated through ‘categorical funding’ (i.e. a funding regime conducted under well-defined guidelines).

Interesting to note that the extra funding was not sought by the government from the two main spending departments namely the DES and DoE and this was at a time when the education and training budgets were experiencing massive cuts! (No doubt the government resorted to their usual creative accounting methods conjuring money from unspecified sources!) The target age range for the initiative was 14 to 18 year olds and so embraced the then emerging national curriculum and GCE ‘A’ levels. The TVEI was very much a broad based curriculum-led development in contrast to the development of GNVQs which was assessment-led.

The guide lines issued in the spring of 1983 provide an insight into how the government wanted the initiative to development namely:

TVEI Policy:
Sponsors: HM Government
Agency: Manpower Services Commission (MSC)
Managers/designers: Local Education Authorities (LEAs)
Users: Teachers/students
Purpose: To explore and test methods of organising, delivering, managing and resourcing replicable programmes of technical/vocational education.

Stated aims:

  • To widen and enrich the curriculum.
  • To prepare students for the world of work.
  • To help students lead a fuller life.
  • To enable students to contribute to the life of the community
  • To enable students to adapt to a changing occupational environment
  • To help students to ‘learn how to learn’.

Agency operational principles:

  • LEAs should be direct line managers, designers and responsible parties of schemes, following centrally devised general criteria with specific design features developed locally.
  • Funding of all extra costs incurred in educating the cohort within a scheme will be met by the agency under strict financial account procedures.
  • Participants and all the involved parties should be consulted during the development of project proposals.
  • The agency will accept a variety of approaches in order to meet the purposes and aims above.

Features of the ‘designated ‘programme: agency guidelines:

Target population:

  • A scheme should include 1,000 students during its life time.
  • Two cohorts of students should complete the course in the 14-18 age range.
  • Participation by students in the scheme should be voluntary.
  • Students should be attracted from the full ability range.
  • Both sexes should be represented.
  • Mixed sex classes should be the norm.
  • Some provision for students with special educational needs should be provided.

Curricular features:

  • Curricular designs should be for four years in the 14-18 age range.
  • Designs should state specific objectives, including attitudinal objectives.
  • Designs should link to subsequent training or vocational opportunities.
  • Designs should include a ‘work experience’ component.
  • Designs should be responsive to local and national shifts in ‘employment opportunities’.
  • Designs should consist of both general and technical/vocational education (i.e. the provision of
  • Courses which lead to students’ acquisition of generic or specific skills with a view to employment).


  • Courses should lead to nationally recognised qualifications.
  • Negotiation of assessment of Performance should take place continuously and on completion, with records of achievement or ‘profiles’ which should express student achievements not readily deducible from formal qualifications.

Management and Staffing:

  • Each LEA scheme should appoint a coordinator.
  • Each participating institution should appoint a coordinator.
  • Local management should be by a ‘support arrangement’, i.e. committee of interested persons.

(Interesting to note the use of the non-mandatory word should!)

At this stage many questions remained unanswered e.g. the precise role of the Local Education Authorities (LEAs), its relationship with the DES, its relationship to the then emerging national curriculum and how schools who did not wish to participate would be dealt with. Many commentators have since argued that the initiative was non-consultative, non-participative and presidential. In many ways it was deliberately provocatively confrontational in by passing so many key groups including the Department of Education and Science (DES). The initiative was seen by many to be driven by ideology and increased the already existing significant tensions between Ministries and their Ministers and the whole landscape at this time was dominated by the tensions between the role and power struggles between the MSC and the DES which were at times articulating contradictory messages about the purpose of education and training. Add to this personality clashes between senior politicians and their advisers and we had an initiative that was sadly doomed.

The then Secretary of State of Education stated the TVEI was just a case of narrow vocationalism and was highly critical of the initiative and its supporters. The initiative most certainly exposed the deep divisions that existed at the time between differing political and indeed ideological beliefs in regard to education and training particularly introducing technical and vocational elements into the school curriculum. These fundamental divisions have plagued British education and training policies for over a century as explained in the history of technical education on this website. A later initiative GNVQ also experienced criticism and ultimately was wound up mainly because of political dogma. Even today debates rage about introducing vocational subjects into the school curriculum e.g. the so-called vocational diplomas.

Personal aside:
I worked on the TVEI in Cornwall and actively supported the LEA and the support committees representing the FE college element within the consortium. It was a very rewarding experience and the initiative developed strong partnerships between the college and the consortium schools and the LEA. Extra courses and resources both in the schools and the college added value to the learning experience of the students and teachers. Specialised accommodation and facilities were created in the participating institutions in such subjects as biotechnology, office/business studies and computer suites and facilities. Staff from participating institutions attended joint in-service sessions that helped to improve their knowledge of teaching technical and vocational subjects. Meetings with other consortia from around the country highlighted good practice and a real commitment to the aims and objectives of the initiative. The initiative promised much both for the county and across the country but because of its politicisation especially at the launch and the uncertainties about long term funding it ultimately failed and represented yet another false dawn dogged by short- termism, inadequate resources and political divisions. In many ways much of the success and examples of good practice remain localised but I would argue that these elements still merit further analysis and evaluation.

Final comments:
TVEI was at its peak between 1983 and 1987 when it most certainly drove the 14-18/19 agenda but from around 1988 its influence waned as the DES reasserted itself and the National Curriculum gained increased momentum. The initiative was increasingly marginalised and eventually ended in 1997. TVEI was ultimately the biggest curriculum development programme ever in British -estimated around £900 million! It most certainly had both strengths and weaknesses which were never really evaluated. Throughout its existence the majority of LEAs were fundamentally against it and the continuing concerns about the role of the MSC and DoE all contributed to its ultimate demise. Also the emerging National Curriculum helped to kill off the initiative. I believe that the lessons learnt from the TVEI development could provide a rich harvest for future projects in 14 to 19 education and training and merit further exploitation.

Dale. R. ‘The TVEI.’ Esland. G. (Ed) ‘Education, Training and Employment.’ Volume 2.The Educational Response. ISBN 0-201-54430-X. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company/OU. 1991.

The Role of the Press in the Mathematics and Numeracy Debate

How can the press be more constructive in the way they present critical issues in education and training particularly, for our purpose, those associated with mathematics and numeracy? A good example of how most of the press communicate important topics is the annual frenzy around GCE ‘A’ and GCSE results. They go over the top with issues about grade inflation, the excellence of public schools over the state system, social deprivation and watered down syllabuses etc. This is so damaging, making many of the students feel guilty and that their efforts have not being recognised. Clearly there are major issues associated with the current examination system including the fact that a number of examining bodies see themselves as hardnosed businesses rather than part of the more public spirited education and pedagogic process, but that is for another time.

The publication of the OECD 2009 (PISA) report and the subsequent coverage in the press again highlights many of the concerns I have about this important topic. The figures should not come as any real surprise to informed individuals who have followed the decline in education and training standards in Britain over the past few decades. PISA shows that in 2009 Britain was ranked 16th in science, 25th in reading, 28th for mathematics compared with the respective figures in 2000 of 4th, 7th, and 8th. Immediately the press picked up the political elements with each respective party putting its own spin on the figures. The pendulum politics kicked in with the usual vacuous statements from Labour that the extra £30 billion spend during their period in government had brought improvements but there was ‘still some room for improvement’! The coalition government just made political capital out of the figures, stating their future plans to privatise schools, give parents and organisations an opportunity to open schools and create more academies – many of which are highly questionable. Surely education is too important to be a political football? The problems faced by this country are very serious as we are now in absolute decline after many years of relative decline when compared with other countries. Politics and politicians have a lot to answer for! What is needed is a cross party consensus on education and training policy.

Enough of politics, so how should the press handle the issues of poor achievement in mathematics and numeracy? Firstly they should accept that there is a real problem and it has been around for a long time and then systematically and carefully begin to highlight and explore ways that inform the public. Less eye grabbing tabloid headlines but a long term serious and reasoned debate about the important issues associated with these subjects and not just at the time of the publication of the results or the PISA reports.

The press made much of the countries which had performed better than us and particularly those that had overtaken us over the past decade. This as a factual statement was useful but what then needed to be asked was why. A number mentioned that many of the countries had a hard work ethic/culture whilst others emphasised that many used very traditional methods of rote learning, again interesting but what is now needed is an informed debate about the relative merits of the whole range of learning and teaching techniques not making ill judged or misinformed statements. There seems to be a tradition in this country to rubbish rote/ repetitious learning recalling the bad old days. If the teaching is inspired and motivating there is still a role for rote learning. After all many experts agree that to create numerical and mathematical capability in people the earlier you start the better by laying the foundation of number and number manipulation. What was wrong earlier was the use of rigid and mechanical ways of teaching which in many cases established good recall facility but no real understanding. Also the approach failed to build on the foundations laid and transfer that knowledge to new and more complex contexts and concepts. The foundations of learning are critical in all subjects and to coin an expression ‘foundations are invisible they are, as a result, as soon forgotten’. Many researchers and commentators on mathematics have stressed the importance of the ability to understand and handle numbers early on and stressed the essential need to link recall with understanding. Good teaching tackles the why and not just the how i.e. links the recall with the understanding and transferability skills. Good developed memory skills still have a place but not in isolation. With this background rationale, the PISA findings and others can be used by the press to convey how other countries manage their education systems particularly at the early stages and then discuss how these approaches may help this country tackle the problem. The press and indeed the media could play a very important part in this critically important issue.

A number of writers have suggested TV has a role to play in raising the profile of mathematics by broadcasting more programmes specifically on mathematics or making greater use in quiz shows. Worthy as these ideas are I feel in addition the image and profile of the subject and individuals involved in the subject could be raised by introducing the subject more in programmes e.g. soap operas. This is not such a trite suggestion just look at the interest and a massive increase in recruitment of students wanting to study forensic science after the Cracker series on TV. The result was that the number of graduates produced by the HE sector greatly exceeded the number of forensic scientists.

So how can the press be more constructive in the debates about mathematics?

  • Attempt to present the issues in a more reasonable and less sensational fashion to inform the public of the serious state of the subject in the country and present the facts as they are without embroidering them for political purposes
  • Take the politics out of the issue it is too serious for political dogma and prejudice and stop cherry pick the figures to make political points; that’s bad mathematics anyway
  • Project in a positive way the essential nature of the subject in life and employment
  • Influence public opinion to develop a positive view of the subject and convey it is an important subject and not difficult if taught be inspiring teachers
  • Introduce mathematics and numeracy problem solving and puzzling into social networking on the internet

Clearly similar statements can be made about the whole issue of the state of education and training in this country.

First published in The Numeracy Briefing. June 2011.

Characteristics of British Education and Training

“Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”. T. S. Eliot.

A wonderful quotation that sadly sums up the British Education and Training system.

Some characteristics of technical. commercial education and training in Britain identified over the period covered by the history on this website include:

  • poor linkages to the economy and the world of work
  • low participation and achievements rates
  • restricted access, progression opportunities and continued evidence of elitism as a result of social class based divisions.
  • negative perception of technical and vocational education and training by politicians, parents, society in general and sadly by many employers
  • the basic cultural hostility to scientific mathematical and technological subjects
  • culture of amateurism and continued neglect of science and technology coupled with an indifference to entrepreneurialism.
  • reluctance to renovate and innovate the country’s manufacturing industries and associated infra-structure
  • a degree of over self-confidence and complacency born out of a misplaced belief of past industrial greatness and the continued resonances of the Empire!
  • constant government interference too often operated on a short term basis and coupled with an overall lack of interest in technical and vocational education and training
  • lots of talk about the problems but very little action to solve them – great – after all the country is world class at writing reports that then collect dust on the shelves.

As with the majority of important issues including education and training this country has suffered from the weakness of successive governments and politicians – after all Intellect Failure has been a Permanent Characteristic of Successive British Governments and many politicians! Poor decision taking has been a constant characteristic of British politics over many decades.

Education and Training over the period of this history has been too isolated and independent of the country’s economic needs and must surely in future produce people leaving schools, colleges and universities that match the employment needs of the country,

(It must be remembered that British Society is essentially a conservative one – this manifests itself very often in undue caution and even sheer inertia towards change).

The failure of the technical, commercial and vocational education and training system contributed to the poor performance of the country in its industrial and business base especially when compared with our main international competitors. Some of the factors identified in the history include:

  • Britain failed consistently to recognise the importance of educating trained scientists in the emerging industries and did not as in Germany establish close institutional relationships between applied science in HE and research and development in industry
  • Innovation in Britain lagged behind in emerging industries that were most dependent upon scientific knowledge and principles namely chemicals, dye-stuff and electrical technology.
  • One of the realities and ultimately negative results of being the pioneering industrial nation that had been created by the gifted artisan and enthusiastic and brilliant amateur who were subsequently unable to apply their undoubted talents to the emerging scientific and technological industries . This was not their fault but that of the state which did not establish a national system of technical and scientific education and training. Other nations such as America and Germany realised the importance of scientific education and training at the higher levels and subsequently became pre-eminent in these and other high technological industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Lack of scientific and technological training of manufacturers and the resulting inability to comprehend the value and importance of science and technology.
  • Poor and uninspiring secondary education led to low progression rates to more advanced scientific and technological education and training
  • An insufficient supply of young people that were properly trained in science , the techniques of applied science and manufacturing
  • The absence of higher technological institutions properly resourced to deliver particularly advanced education and training e.g. at postgraduate levels
  • Also an underdeveloped applied science facility in universities, colleges and a lack of a number of high quality vocational HE institutions e.g. polytechnic type all contributed to a weak technical and technological education and training system. In addition there has been a consistent weakness in the schools for scientific, technical and vocational subjects.
  • Also generally a luke warm support for technical and commercial education and training from employer organisations, Chambers of Commerce, CBI etal.

The slow development of technical, commercial education and training in Britain has been voluntary, haphazard and incidental. Sadly these characteristics and approaches continue today!

When initiatives/pilot experiments were introduced most failed because:

  • of conflicts between and within relevant interested parties e.g. government, their departments, special advisors. quangos etal
  • Minimal coordination of the initiatives/pilots
  • The absence of clearly defined objectives and strategies for the implementation of the initiatives/pilots
  • Very often pilots and initiatives were operated over too short a period of time
  • Very seldom fully evaluated at the end of the pilot.

Good examples: CPVE, GNVQ and TVEI.