Youth Matters

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the current global financial crisis is the very high level of youth unemployment particularly in Europe. Sadly the present situation looks like it will persist for some time and already commentators are talking about a lost generation mirroring a similar situation in a number of regions in Britain in the 1980s e.g. North East and South West of England. I had direct experience of that situation in Cornwall and the plethora of short term schemes introduced by the then government most of which failed to create long term solutions. Unfortunately at present one can see a similar scenario developing across many countries in Europe and beyond. Complex and interrelated features become manifest at times of high unemployment including the demographical, financial, and societal and most obviously the type and profile of current employment in the country. Whilst politicians argue about the priorities and sequencing of austerity and growth measures, too often the complex issues associated with the possibility of long term structural unemployment particularly for young people is not given the highest priority. The situation is made more complicated at present as the various global transformations come into even stronger and more significant focus e.g. the emergence of the BRICS economies and the ever accelerating advance of the newer technologies and their applications. Ironically in such times golden opportunities arise to fundamentally review and reform critical factors including the structure of the wealth generating base of a country and its relationship to other world economies.

One issue is clear, that the current financial crisis will take a long time to be resolved possibly a generation! Most certainly the future will be very different and will require radical and new solutions; historical signposts will offer little guidance so new paradigms need to be established. So what will this mean for the education and training for the unemployed, young people and under 25 graduates. Conventional curriculum design and traditional teaching methods will not work in the current climate so the purpose and structure of existing education and training systems need to be fundamentally reviewed and reformed. I will focus on Britain and the education and training of young people but many of the points highlighted may apply in other countries. Very different types of employment will necessarily be anticipated and the education and training of young people must be more aligned to the future trends of commerce, industry and services worldwide and as a result totally new approaches in the curriculum will be required both in terms of its content, delivery and structure. This assumes that the country has developed a well defined strategy for the regeneration of its economy underpinned with effective Labour Market Intelligence (LMI) to monitor the changes both nationally and globally.

The curriculum must be structured to create new skills bases with greater emphasis on flexibility, generic skills, entrepreneurial skills and the recognition of the importance of multi- and cross-skilling within the workforce. For example small and medium sized enterprises will become even more important in the future so the curriculum must fully recognise the essential skills that will be necessary i.e. put simply to prepare young people to be more enterprising, creative and innovative. These skills are not present in the heavily prescribed curricula and only figure in more specific programmes at college and university level. It is essential that these are fully integrated into programmes for all students whether at school, college or university. Themes that are critical and essential for coping with the new demands could include:

  • Business skills  especially at the setting up stage
  • Managing self or lone employment
  • Marketing a small business
  • Financial literacy skills
  • Greater awareness of economics and banking
  • Knowledge of legal issues as it relates to running a business
  • Greater competence in languages of key countries – customers and suppliers
  • Greater awareness and knowledge of other countries’ business, manufacturing and services strengths including cultural aspects
  • Problem solving skills
  • The introduction to philosophy and philosophical concepts that will allow a more critical, logical, pragmatic and reflective view of life and work to be developed.

To be even more effective the new programmes must be supported by vastly improved Careers Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) systems. In order to enable a young person to be better prepared for work increased emphasis must be given to work experience/shadowing/sandwich programmes and that employers are more involved at all stages of the education and training process.

Analysis of previous recessions affecting Britain offer few positive examples of major reforms as only too often governments and companies cut back on training and fail to adopt regenerative and effective long term strategies to develop and strengthen the skills of the workforce. Also they are prone to create short term schemes that achieve little or no long term benefit for the young people or the country. Wider societal elements also contribute to problems with the education and training of young people including the obsession with celebrity culture and the possible negative effects of media role models. The increasing desire for instant answers and the resultant tendency to invest less time in learning coupled with a decline in critical analysis as a result of the dependency on the internet can be problematic. But having said that young people are far more confident in exploiting the benefits of the new technologies and if the educational experience on offer recognises that they will be more aligned to the way these technologies impact on both the world of work and the work of the world.

The current situation will present governments and politicians with some major challenges but one aspect is critical and that is that all interested parties should be involved in the reviews and subsequent proposals including employers, the media, educational and training organisations and definitely the young people themselves. The reforms must be radical and fully recognise that the nature of education, training and work will be very different in the future so all parties must be prepared to bury past practices and ideologies in order to create a more promising future for young people. A country that fails to invest in its young people will also fail to succeed in the global economy.

First published on the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development website-Autumn 2012.

Polytechnic Institutions of London

Some historical background:

Royal Polytechnic Institution (Incorporated 1838)The genesis of the Polytechnic movement was the foundation in 1838 of the Polytechnic Institution located at 309 Regent Street and 5 Cavendish Square – figure opposite. The driving force in its creation was George Cayley (1773-1857) who was a noted inventor accredited with the foundations of aerodynamics and aerial navigation. The Polytechnic opened on 6th August 1838 with exhibitions and demonstrations of printing, optical equipment, power looms etc reflecting the intended practical applications focus of the institution. The building included laboratories and lecture rooms. It received a Royal Charter in 1839 and became known as the Royal Polytechnic Institution. The Polytechnic offered a non-classical, non-university education organised around popular public lectures and research into the rapidly developing technologies of the time. It is important to remember that there was still a great deal of resistance and prejudice among the then traditional universities e.g. Cambridge and Oxford to science and technology. An example of this ridiculous attitude was the vice-chancellor of Cambridge who commented on hearing that Joseph Priestley (discoverer of oxygen) had been appointed as professor of chemistry at Warrington Academy (see biographies on this website) ‘chemistry is not a suitable subject for universities’. The Royal Polytechnic existed for over forty years and was among the few institutions to pioneer technical education.

The Polytechnic Institutions

In 1881 Quintin Hogg (see biography on this website) purchased the buildings occupied by the Royal Polytechnic to develop further his educational work for the “poorer classes”. The new institution became known as the Regent Street Polytechnic and was opened in 1882 and so the Polytechnic movement was born with the Regent Street Polytechnic providing an exemplary model to tackle the problems associated with the education of young people in London. It must be remembered the parlous state of education provision for young people at this time.  The London Polytechnic movement was created at the end of the 19th century to address and tackle some of those deficiencies in the educational and training opportunities for young people who had left school and were working during the day. In 1880 London had three quarters of a million young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty five but less than 2% of that male population and an infinitesimal percentage of those females attended any form of educational institution. The polytechnic movement was remarkable and possibly unique at this time in its intention to combine instruction, social interaction and recreation for its students. They were not to be a place of amusement with a few educational classes added; nor were they educational institutions that provided limited opportunities for recreation. The interplay of these three elements was devised intentionally to address the specific needs of this age group living in deprived areas of London. The moral purpose of these institutions was to steer young people away from crime, alcohol and prostitution. The polytechnic movement owed much to the earlier Mechanics’ Institutions e.g. Birkbeck College represented a direct link with the Mechanics’ Institution movement.

It is to Quintin Hogg and his commitment and pioneering work for the education of working young people and his philanthropy that the London Polytechnic movement was established. It was largely the success of his work that created the foundations for the other London Polytechnics.  But no one individual, however generous, could fund the development of other institutions across the city.

What gave the subsequent Polytechnic movement added impetus to expand and extend over London was the City Parochial Charities Act of 1883. The Act provided for the application of any surpluses to be spent on the following priority areas to improve the physical, social and moral condition of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis and specific objectives were:

  • To promote the Education of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis by means of technical, secondary or art education, or evening lectures
  • To establish and maintain libraries, museums or art collections
  • To promote and extend provident institutions, and working men’s and women’s institutes
  • To preserve, provide and maintain open spaces, and recreation, or drill grounds
  • And generally to improve the physical, social and moral condition of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis.

To gather evidence about the then current state of technical education members of the Commissioners had visited the Regent Street Polytechnic, the People’s Palace* and analysed data and information from the Report of the Royal Commission on Technical Education and the work of the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) (see biographies and history on this website). The success of the Finsbury Technical College also provided useful evidence for the polytechnics structure and management. As a result of their work they proposed a regional development of similar Polytechnics across London in the East, North, North-West, South, South-East, South-West and West the intention being to create a ring of institutions in London. After a great deal of argument and discussion and subsequent refinement of the purpose of institutions the Commissioners issued a schedule for the Institutions stating that the primary object was the promotion of industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young people belonging to the poorer classes namely:

  • “Instruction in: (i) The general rules and principles of the arts and sciences applicable to any handicraft, trade or business. (ii) The practical application of such general rules and principles in any handicraft, trade or business. (iii) Branches or details of any handicraft, trade or business, facilities for acquiring the knowledge of which cannot be usually obtained in the workshop or other place of business. The Classes and Lectures shall not be designed or arranged so as to be in substitution for practical experience of the workshop or place of business, but so as to be supplementary thereto.
  • Instruction suitable for persons intending to emigrate.
  • Instruction in such branches and subjects of Art, Science, Language, Literature and General knowledge, as may be approved by the Governing Body.
  • Public Lectures or courses of Lectures, musical and other entertainments and exhibitions.
  • Instruction and practice in gymnastics, drill, swimming, and other bodily exercises.
  • Facilities for the formation and meeting of Clubs and Societies.
  • A Library. Museum and Reading Room or Reading Rooms.”

The funds provided by the City Parochial Charities were greatly enhanced from other sources particularly the Livery Companies. For example the Drapers’ Company took over the People’s Palace whilst the Goldsmiths’ Company assumed total responsibility to create and maintain the proposed Goldsmith’ Institution located in Lewisham High Road, New Cross. Also the Clothworkers’ Company gave significant funds to the Northern Polytechnic at Holloway whilst other City Companies assisted in other ways. A number of Polytechnics absorbed existing colleges e.g. City of London College.

In 1903 there were twelve polytechnics institutions and three branches namely:

North of the Thames:

The East London Technical College, Mile End Road, E with its branches, the Bow and Bromley Institute.
The Northern Polytechnic, Holloway, N. (Opened 1896).
The Regent Street Polytechnic, Regent Street, W. (Opened 1882).
The South-West London Polytechnic, Manresa Road, Chelsea, S.W. (Opened 1895).
The John Cass Institute, Jewry Street, EC. (Opened 1899).
The City Polytechnic, comprising:
The Northampton Institute, Clerkenwell, E.C. (Opened 1896)
The Birkbeck College, Bream’s Building, Chancery Lane, E.C.
The City of London College, White Street, Moorfields, E.C.(First opened in 1860)

South of the Thames:

The Battersea Polytechnic, Battersea Park Road, S.W. (opened 1894).
The Borough Polytechnic, Borough Road, S.E. with two branches, the Herold Institute, Bermondsey, S.E., and the Norwood Institute, Knight’s Hill, S.E. (Opened 1892).
The Goldsmiths’ Institute, Lewisham High Road, New Cross, S.E. (Opened 1891).
The Woolwich Polytechnic, William Street, Woolwich, S.E.  (Opened 1891).

The Polytechnics addressed the needs of the apprentice and artisan including the architects’ drawing-clerks. They developed specialised faculties for their local needs. For example the Northampton Institute established provision for metal-work and technical optics; the Borough Polytechnic programmes for builders, plumbers and bakery, whilst the John Cass Institute developed provision in metallurgy. Woolwich Polytechnic provided scientific instruction to the workers at the Arsenal. Battersea Polytechnic developed engineering for the London and South West Railway. Chelsea Polytechnic focused on provision for commercial and clerical work and Regent Street Polytechnic offered provision in art, commerce, science and trade. Between them the Polytechnics offered a very wide range of courses ranging from bookbinding, building trades, cabinet making and furniture trades, carriage making, carpentry and joinery, goldsmiths/silversmiths, house painting and decorating, metal plate working, plumbing, printing, and wheelwrights’ work as well as introducing provision for women covering book-keeping, domestic economy subjects, languages, and shorthand.

Attached to several of the polytechnics were eight other special schools catering for example for girls wishing to study domestic economy subjects. Therefore the polytechnics offered a wide range of subjects at different levels. So it was possible for young people after passing the Public Elementary School fifth grade to remain in the polytechnic day school up to sixteen or seventeen; on leaving school at any age, continue education in any branch of study, in either evening or day classes; to prepare either for manual labour, commerce and the higher levels of technical education. Also it was possible to undertake a classical curriculum similar to that of a university, to qualify for membership of the professional association or take a London degree and finally to specialise in post-graduate investigation or research in various areas of art, literature or science.

The Polytechnic Institutes of London proved a great success and developed parallel to similar technical institutions across Britain and contributed to the development of technical and commercial education and training in the country. The institutions underwent many name changes merging with other institutions and a number form part of the modern universities in London.

*Peoples Palace was started in the East End of London after the publication of Walter Besant’s ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men’  as a place of education and recreation initially providing day and evening classes in the trades and industrial occupations. Classes in mechanical, electrical engineering, chemistry, science and art were offered as well as social and other activities. The Palace then became the East London Technical College and is now part of London University.


The London ‘Polytechnic’ title had no connection with institutions so named in mainland Europe e.g. France, Germany and Switzerland. The name was carried over from the George Cayley Royal Polytechnic when Quintin Hogg purchased the premises after the Royal Polytechnic went bankrupt.

A useful definition of Polytechnic is an institution teaching many art and technical subjects up to and including degree level and offering a number of modes of attendance e.g. full and part-time.

Useful References:

Webb. S. London Education’. Longmans, Green and Co. 1904.
Millis. C. T. ‘Technical Education. Its Development and Aims’. Edward Arnold. 1925.
Sadler. M. E. Continuation Schools in England and Elsewhere’. Manchester University Press. 1907.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) and Education

Social theorist, writer, political campaigner and cited as the first female sociologist.

Harriet MartineauI came across this remarkable woman in the biography of Charles Knight.

She wrote for the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK see biographies on this website). Born in Norwich where her father was a manufacturer and her mother held very strong views on female propriety and behaviour. The family were of Huguenot decent and held Unitarian views. Harriet suffered ill health most of her life. She began to write from an early age for the Unitarian publication ‘the Monthly Repository’ but after the age of 27 she was able to move away from her mother’s influence and strict discipline and began to expand her writing to wider themes which she would continue to her death. Her first publications were focused on political and economic issues including a fictional tutorial on a number of key political economists such as Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Her publications soon gained recognition and wide acclaim winning a number of prizes from the Unitarian Association.

I will focus on her work in education but she was a prolific write and commentator on issues ranging from America, children, education, feminism, household education, marriage, race relations and religion. Her writings were both seminal and eclectic in nature and are still relevant today. After gaining success she moved to London where politicians and civil servants sought her advice on a wide range of issues both political and cultural. She also maintained a wide circle of friends including Charles Babbage, Henry Brougham, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, George Elliot, Charles Knight, Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill. She translated and condensed Auguste Comte’s six volume ‘Cours de Philosophie Positive’ into two volumes entitled ‘The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte’ – a version which Comte himself recommended to his students over his own!

Harriet Martineau displayed a great interest in education and wrote her first article on education at the age of 21. She argued education was a vital element throughout life and its universal implementation would contribute to a better society emphasising both the intellectual and physical aspects of early and lifelong education. Education would make people better employees, employers and parents. She also strongly advocated that employers should expect that prospective employees should have had educational opportunities prior to employment and that employers should provide appropriate industrial education for all their employees, a view which aligned with those of Robert Owen. A true visionary, she stressed the importance of lifelong learning, strongly advocating vocational education as well as intellectual training for all children from all classes of society. She was a passionate advocate for girls’ and women’s education emphasising skill acquisition for preparation for work and argued for the removal of all barriers to further and higher education and employment for women.
She was very supportive of:


  • A national system of education for the working class
  • Industrial training and a curriculum that included the 3 Rs, industrial and manual training
  • A more enlightened and freer curriculum in infant schools with less emphasis on rote learning and didacticism
  • The creation of working women’s colleges that would better prepare women for vocational occupations with better pay
  • The establishment of general education provision for women wishing to pursue self-improvement programmes
  • Reform of public schools’ endowments and charitable trusts
  • The extension of the remit for the Taunton Commission (1864-67) to include female education
  • She expressed her disapproval of:
  • The monitorial system and rote learning
  • The same tests for girls when they were required to spend a disproportionate time was spent on domestic subjects when compared with boys
  • Corporal punishment
  • Endowments that were exclusively for boys e.g. for entry to Christ’s Hospital
  • The public school system

As one can see her views, beliefs and opinions were truly challenging and insightful, reflecting the fragmented nature of Victorian society at the time and were seen by many at the time and even today as subversive. That they are seen as still relevant today reflects that many of fundamental issues are yet to be resolved. She was instrumental in creating the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW-an unfortunate acronym which was helpfully changed later) after writing an article in the Edinburgh Review. She spent her later life in the Lake District where she taught at the local Mechanics’ Institution, a movement she greatly admired and supported. At one time she was an active member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.
Weiner Gaby. Umea University, Sweden. ‘Harriet Martineau on Education’. An excellent paper presented at Birmingham University on 18th October 2004.
Pichanick, Valerie. ‘Harriet Martineau, The Woman and Her Work, 1802-76’. University of Michigan Press.
Harriet Martineau work with Charkes Knight is described in ‘Charles Knight Educator, Publisher, Writer’ by Valerie Gray. ISBN-10: 0 7546 5219X. Ashgate. 2006.

Great Engineers and Pioneers and their Education

Updated November 2016.

Trained men and apprentices contributed greatly to the Industrial Revolution but it must be remembered that the majority never had never studied at university or enjoyed any significant period in a school education. The majority of these remarkable individuals came through the apprenticeship route, taught themselves or gained their experience in the work place. Many possessed a natural innate ability to solve engineering problems. The Industrial Revolution owed little to education systems or to direct action from the state. It is also interesting to note how many of these individuals were from Scotland.

A good example is the development of machine tools. The key players were Joseph Bramah, Joseph Clements, Henry Maudslay, William Muir, Richard Roberts and Joseph Whitworth . All started as manual workers but made their engineering contribution through the application of geometry, a working knowledge of metals, and the gradual improvement in precision, accuracy and replication of machine tools.
In addition people like Telford and Maudslay also trained many individuals through apprenticeships who then went on to make their own discoveries and inventions including Joseph Clement, Joseph Whitworth, Richard Roberts and James Nasmyth.
The list is by no means complete and some current entries are incomplete but I intend to add more detail as my researches continue.

Discoveries/Other Achievements
Education/Training (if known) and/or occupation
 John Anderson
Scottish educator. Established weekly classes for mechanics/artizans basis of the Mechanics’ Institutions. The Andersonian/Anderson Institution created after his death for which he left money in his will. (See biography on this website).
Educated at Glasgow University.
 John Astbury
Pioneering potter and researcher.
 August Applegath
 Printer improved the steam-powered flat-bed press.
Richard Arkwright
Industrialist and inventor. Automatic spinning frame (1769)
Some times referred to as the Father of the Industrial Revolution.
Apprenticeship but mainly self taught. Started a successful career as a barber specialising in dyeing hair. Became interested in spinning and his frame invention  was financially supported by Strutt and Need a Nottingham manufacturer.
 Henry Edward Armstrong 1847-1937  Chemist and strong advocate for improvements to science teaching more focussed on investigation and exploration.  Royal College of Chemistry and Leipzig University. Professor of Chemistry at Finsbury Technical College.
William Armstrong
Industrialist and inventor. Hydraulic engines, cranes  and swing bridges and then ordnance manufacture
Articled solicitor but turned to engineering
 William Arrol
Scottish engineer. Built viaducts and railways.
 Apprenticed blacksmith. Studied mechanics and hydraulics at night school.
 Joseph Aspdin
Bricklayer and inventor. patented Portland cement.
Stonemason by trade.
 William Edward Ayrton
Educator, engineer and inventor
 Studied mathematics at University College, London. (see biography on this website).
Charles Babbage
Mathematician/Inventor /writer including calculating machines/founder of Royal Statistical Society, Astronomical Society and the British Association/ophthalmoscope/railway signals
Cambridge university
 John Fredrick La Trobe
 Water engineer
Henry Bell
Engineer. Steam boats – first passenger-carrying steamboat in European waters.
Apprenticeship/millwright/stone mason/carpenter
 Patrick Bell
 Invented the first successful reaping machine
 Trained as a clergyman.
Henry Bessemer
Pioneer metallurgist, military ordnance, inventor and business man. Bessemer steel converter 1756
Self taught and learnt metallurgy in his father’s foundry
 Edward John Bevan
English industrial chemist. Patented the viscose process for rayon manufacture.
Studied at Owens College, Manchester.
William Bickford
Inventor. Miner’s safety fuse (1831)
Apprenticeship/leather worker
J G Bodmer
Inventor. Pioneer of the assembly line. Major contributions to a wide range of machines using steam, water to drive textile mills armaments and locomotives. Founded the Chorlton Mills in Manchester
Swiss born and a skilled mechanical engineer
Matthew Boulton
Inventor. Steam engine technology. Manufactured many metal products including buttons, coins, and clocks. With James Watt opened a steam-engine factory in Birmingham. Developed steam-powered coin minting machine.
 Local grammar school thenan academy in Deritend, Birmingham. Brilliant business person who factory offered many good opportunities to apprentices and employees. Worked closely with James Watt
Joseph Bramah
Inventor. Water closet (1778)/Safety locks (unpickable/hydraulic press/fire engine and a beer machine for use in pubs. Also invented a machine for printing bank notes
Apprenticeship to village carpenter. Became a cabinetmaker in London.  He went on to train many other mechanics and inventors including one of the first proposals to create a screw-propeller.
 Thomas Brassey
English engineer. Designed and built viaducts and railways.
Articled as a land surveyor.
James Brindley
Engineer and canal builder e.g. Trent and the Barton aqueduct; discovered the process of puddle clay linings to canals. Mersey canal started in 1766
Apprenticeship as a millwright and self taught but possessed an instinctive ability for engineering.
 Robert Brown
 Scottish botanist discovered the ‘Brownian motion effect’ and a plant hunter.
Educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Engineer and inventor. Railway/ship engineering/bridge and tunnel building
Attended boarding school then to a school in France (College of Caen) and the Lycee Henri Quatre in Paris and gained valuable work experience with Maudslay and Son and Field.
 Henry Brunner
 Educated at father’s school – then Zurich Polytechnic. Became chief chemist at John Hutchinson’s Works.
 Edwin Beard Budding
 Inventor of the lawn mower.
 Mary Carpenter
 English educationalist and reformer. Founded a ragged schools.
Trained as a teacher.
Edmund Cartwright
Inventor. Power- loom (1787)/Wool-combing machine
Oxford – trained at Wakefield and Oxford for the church. Became interested in weaving and with other craftsmen developed the power-loom.
Henry Cavendish
Pioneering investigator in electricity, discovered hydrogen. Torsion balance to determine the mean density of the earth
Cambridge but left without a degree. Conducted research very much alone. Cavendish Laboratory established in 1871 in his honour.
 George Cayley
Amateur scientist and aviation pioneer. Developed the first successful glider.
 Tutored privately by George Walker.
 William Chapman
Canal engineer.
 Charles Chubb
English locksmith/business man. Improved ‘detector locks’ Ran a hardware business.
 Samuel Clegg
English inventor. Worked with William Murdock/Murdoch on gas illuminations systems. Invented a number od appliances for gas fittings e.g. meters, valves etc.
Apprenticed at Matthew Boulton and James Watt works. Taught by John Dalton.
 Dugald Clerk
 Scottish Mechanical engineer. Gas engine designer.
 Studied at Anderson’s College, Glasgow and Leeds to because a chemical engineer.
John Clement
Invented the metal-plning machine and improved lathe design. Engineer to Charles Babbage
Attended a local village school for a short period. Apprenticed thatcher and slater.Later worked for Bramah Maudslay
 Joseph Clement
A tool maker. Worked with Joseph Braham at Henry Maudslay’s factory. Improved  engineering standards by inventing screw threads e.g. a planning machine patented in 1825. and a constant speed lathe which was patented in 1827.
 Apprenticed tool maker.
 William Congreve
English scientist. Controller at Woolwich Laboratory. Invented the ‘Congreve rocket’.
 Educated at the Woolwich Academy.
 William Cookworthy.
Henry Cort
Navy agent and Inventor e.g. the Cort process converting pig iron into wrought iron patented in 1783/84
Naval agent/clerk where he managed a forge in Gosport Hampshire where is researched processes and invented the puddling process.
 Thomas Russell Crampton
English engineer. Designer of locomotives and installed the first cross channel cable.
Richard Crawshay
Introduced Cort’s puddling process.
 James Croll
Scottish physicist and geologist. Pioneer in climate science and geology.
 Elementary school-self taught. Millwright, keeper at the museum of Anderson’s College.
Samuel Crompton
Improved the Spinning Mule (1779) which was across between Hargreaves spinning jenny and Arkwright’s water frame.
Well educated but with no mechanical training largely self-taught
 Joseph Crosfield
 Soap and chemical manufacturer in Warrington.
 Quaker education – then apprenticed as a druggist and chemist in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
William Cubitt
Civil engineer. Canal/railways. Invented the treadmill and involved in the construction of the Great Exhibition Hall 0f 1851.
Apprenticeship worked as a miller, cabinet- maker and a millwright until 1821 when he went to Ransome’s factory near Ipswich.
 John Curr.
 Railway/tram engineer.
 David Dale
Scottish industrialist and philanthropist. Successful line business. Employed hundreds of pauper children.
 Apprenticed to a weaver.
John Dalton
Atomic theory (1808), scientific experimenter invented the hygrometer. Tutor at New College Manchester in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.
Basic school education (Quaker).
No formal education.
 Abraham Darby
English iron master. Founded the Bristol Iron Company. His son A. Darby 2 (1711-1763) and his grandson 3 A. Darby (1750-1791) followed him in the iron industry. Darby 3 built the world’s first iron bridge in 1779. Converts furnace to smelt iron with coke instead of charcoal.
Erasmus Darwin
Physician. Founded the Derby Philosophical Society/Lunar Society member
 John Davenport.
Potter and manufacturer.
 Humphry Davy
 Chemist and physicist. Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution. Discovered potassium and sodium and established the science of electro-chemistry.
 Penzance Grammar School then apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary.
 Henry Deacon
 Chemist and Industrialist. Invented apparatus for grinding and smoothing glass.
 Quaker education then apprenticed to a local engineering group Galloway and Sons and the Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company.
 James Dewar
Scottish chemist/physicist. Invented the Dewar flask and discovered cordite.
Educated at Edinburgh University.
 Bryan Donkin
English engineer and inventor. Developed automated paper making machines. Patented rotary printing machine. Improved food preserving techniques.
Apprenticed as a mechanic.
 Thomas Drummond
Engineer and surveyor. Invented LIMELIGHT known as Drummond light. Improved the heliostat used in surveying.
 George R Elkington.
Inventor pioneered electroplating. later opened a copper-smelting works in South Wales.
 Apprenticed at a Birmingham small arms factory
 William Fairburn
 Scottish civil engineer, structural engineer, railways and shipbuilder. Invented steam excavator and sausage making machines.
 Apprenticed as a millwright in Newcastle upon Tyne. Befriended G. Stephenson.
Michael Faraday
Physicist and chemist. Pioneering electrical engineer;  invented amongst other items the electric motor, transformer and the dynamo. Director of Chemical Laboratory Royal Institution.
Self-taught apprenticed to a book binder. Worked with Humphry Davy and succeeded Davys chair of chemistry at the Royal Institution famous for the Christmas lectures
 Samuel fellows
Framework knitter and textile manufacturer and researcher.
 James David Forbes
 Scottish physicist and glaciologist.
Self-taught and then entered Edinburgh University.
 William Frankland
 Brilliant chemist
 Lancaster Royal Grammar School then apprenticed as a druggist in Lancaster – then assistant at the chemical laboratory of the British Geological Society (Lyon Playfair was director (see biography on this website)). Marburg and Giessen.
 Holbrook Gaskell
 Educated at private school and then apprenticed clerk in the Yates, Cox Company – an iron merchant and nail makers. Formed a partnership with James Nasmyth.
 Holbrook Gaskell (2)
 Chemical industry
 Educated at Owen’s College Manchester
 Holbrook Gaskell (3)
 Chemical industry
 William Gossage
 Chemical manufacture- soap. Patented an alarm devise which could be attached to a watch or clock
 Apprenticed to his uncle as a druggist and chemist – studied chemistry and French.
 James Henry Greathead
 Inventor – born South Africa. Designed the ‘Greathead shield’ used in drilling tunnels and subways.
 Apprenticed as a civil engineer.
 Samuel Greg
Irish man after moving to England built the Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. He established a small school within the factory complex. The mill is now a fascinating museum.  Active in the Mechanics’ Institution movement.
James Hargreaves/Hargraves
Inventor. Spinning loom (1764)
Little formal education/self-taught. Worked as a weaver and carpenter.
 Thomas Hancock.
Rubber engineer and researcher.
 Joseph Hall 1789-1862. Iron founder and experimenter.
John Harrison
Inventor and horologist. Clocks/Chronometer. Invented the gridiron pendulum and the remontoir escapement.
Little formal education/self-taught
 Thomas Hawksley
Water engineer.
 Apprenticed to an architect.
 William Hedley.
Railway engineer.
John Heathcoat
Inventor of a lace, ribbon and net –making machine
Apprenticeship (Knitting machines)
 Alfred Holt
 Engineer, ship owner and merchant.
 Robert Hunt

Government School of Mines and Experimental Physics .

No formal education. Apprenticed to doctor in London.
 John Hutchinson
 Chemist and Industrialist.
 Educated in Paris.
 William Jessop
 English civil engineer. Canal and railways
 Pupil of John Smeaton.
 James Prescott Joule
Physicist and researcher . Thermodynamics.
 Private tutor and self-taught.
John Kay
Inventor of machines including the fly or flying shuttle. Reed-maker for the weaving industry. Invented a number of machines to improve the weaving processes. Fly/Flying shuttle (1738).
Educated in France
James Keir
Assisted Priestley in experiments/Chemical research. Lunar Society member.
Edinburgh High School and University where he studied medicine.
 William Lever
 Industrialist and politician. Founded a soap and cleaning manufacturer Lever Brothers.
 Educated in Bolton at Bolton Church Institute then worked in family grocery business.
 Joseph Locke
English railway engineer.
Articled to George Stephenson.
 Charles Macintoch
Scottish industrial chemist and inventor. Patented processes for waterproofing rubber.
Educated in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
 Kirkpatrick Macmillan
Scottish inventor. Credited with the first tricycle and bicycle – pedal driven.
 Farm worker, coachman and blacksmith.
 William Mather
 Industrialist and politician. Great advocate for education Chairman of Mather and Platt (Ironworking).
 Educated privately then at Owen’s College/Manchester University
John McAdam
Pioneer road designer and builder
Wealthy individual who invested his own money in improving road design and building – process he invent named after him ‘roads were macadamised’
William McNaught
Mechanical engineer and inventor. Compound steam engine (1845).
Trained as a marine engineer/Attended Andersonian/Anderson’s Institution
 Robert Mallet
A brilliant and versatile Irish geophysicist, civil engineer and inventor. See as the founder of the science of seismology. Editor of the ‘Practical Mechanics Journal’ between 1861 and 1867, contributor to ‘The Engineer’ and has many patents to his name.
 Attended Trinity College Dublin
 John Marshall
 Improved linen manufacturing techniques
Henry Maudslay
Engineer and inventor. Machine tools e.g. table-engine 1807. Patents for calico printing, small steam engines and the differential for lathes. Trained a number of brilliant toolmakers including Joseph Clement, Richard Roberts and Joseph Whitworth.
Apprenticeship (Blacksmiths) but did not serve the full 7 years but was taken on by Joseph Bramah for 9 years gaining valuable experience of engineering and manufacturing processes.
 John Mercer
English chemist specialised in dyes. Discovered processes associated with such materials as cotton and calico.
 Self taught.
Jack Metcalf
Engineer. Pioneer  road-building
No formal training. A truly remarkable individual totally blind since the age of 6 Possessed an inexplicable 6th sense and talent. He went on to design and build roads in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire e.g. Macclesfield-Chapel-en-le-Frith and Buxton -Whaley Bridge. Over 180 miles of roads stand to his genius
William Murdock/Murdoch
Engineer. Gas lighting/steam coach/Lunar Society
Initially worked with father as a millwright. Gained further experience with Boulton and Watts factory i.e. learnt on the job
Matthew Murray
Mechanical engineer and inventor. Yarn manufacture. Improved the design of the steam engine and flax-spinning machine.
Apprenticeship (Blacksmith). Improved the design of the steam engine as well as developing textile machinery
 David Mushet
Scottish iron master. Improved the efficiency of iron/steel smelting processes.
James Muspratt
Chemist and industrialist. Chemical industries alkali manufacturer using the Leblanc process for the first time in England.
Apprenticeship (Druggist). Established a chemical factory with Thomas Abbott.
 Robert Napier
A brilliant marine engineer established an engineering business in Glasgow in 1815. Designed engines for boats including for one called the Leven. Developed the ship building yard at Govan and continued to build hips for companies such as P and O and the navy.
James Nasmyth
Engineer. Machine tools e.g. steam hammer 1839 and the steam pile driver which revolutionised the construction of bridges. Also a planning machine and a hydraulic punching machine. Founded the Bridgewater Foundry at Patricroft.
Attended Edinburgh High School for 3 years but left at 12. Attended evening classes at Edinburgh School of Arts (really a technical college) his father also helped with his education. In addition he continued to teach himself. He went to work with Maudslay and Sons and Field and gained valuable experience.
James Neilson
Engineer. Blast furnace in steel manufacture/Founded the Glasgow Gas Workmen’s Institution (1821)
Little formal education/self taught
Thomas Newcomen
Inventor. Steam engine design/First efficient atmospheric steam engine. Worked with Thomas Savery.
Blacksmith/Ironmonger worked with Thomas Savery
Thomas Percival
Significant figure in the Manchester Lit and Phil movement
Warrington Dissenting Academy/Edinburgh and Leyden gaining a MD.
William Perkin
Chemist. Initially researched synthesising coal-tar but then moved to textile dyes creating a number of synthetic dyes. Discoverer of aniline dyes.
City of London School. Royal College of Chemistry studied and worked with August Hofmann
William Pilkington
Industrialist. Glass making
Left school at 18
Lyon Playfair
Chemist/technical education advocate and served on many committees including those on scientific and technical education. Professor of Chemistry Royal Institution and Professor of Chemistry applied to Arts and Agriculture at the School of Mines.
St Andrews; Andersonian Institute: Giessen University Germany
Joseph Priestley
Chemist and clergyman. Discovered oxygen and researched electrical science/Lunar Society member. Tutor at Warrington Academy and New College Hackney.
Grammar school/home tuition/Daventry Dissenting Academy
 William Radcliffe
Cotton manufacturer and inventor.
Jesse Ramsden
Instrument maker e.g. screw cutting lathe 1770/dividing engine 1775. Instruments used in mathematics and astronomical research
Apprenticeship in instrument making.
 Robert Ransome
Opened a small iron works in Norwich and obtained a patent for tempering cast-iron ploughshares. Helped to standardise the parts of ploughs and other agricultural  machines. He went on to open a factory in Ipswich which still continues today.
 John Urpeth Restrick
 Engineer and inventor.
Richard Roberts
Mechanical engineer and inventor. Invented a screw-cutting machine, gas meter and planning machines used in spinning machinery. Invented a number of spinning machines and railway locomotives.
Worked initially in a quarry as a labourer. Apprenticed and pupil of Henry Maudslay after running away from recruiting sergeants
 John Roebuck
 English inventor. Improved refining methods of precious metals. Founded the Carron Foundry.
Educated at Edinburgh and Leyden.
Benjamin Rumford
Scientist and administrator. Investigator of energy/Invented the shadow photometer and introduced the concept of the standard candle/Technical education/Royal Institution
School/Apprenticeship/Harvard University
 John Scott Russell
  Canal engineer
 Titus Salt.
 Wool manufacturer and business person.
Thomas Savery
Inventor and military engineer. Invented the paddle system on boats. Invented the first practical steam engine in 1698 which was improved by Thomas Newcomen.
Military engineer
Samuel Seaward
Cranes, dredgers, swing bridges and many other inventions
A pupil of Henry Maudslay
John Smeaton
Civil engineer. Researched the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. Lighthouse design e.g. Eddystone. Improved the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine. Founder of civil engineering profession.
School/Apprenticeship. Worked as a mathematical-instrument maker.
 Josiah Spode
 A master potter and managed factory in Stoke-on Trent. Researched methods of making porcelain. A pioneer in the pottery industry.
George Stephenson
Railway engineer. Steam locomotives
Evening classes three nights a week paying 4 pence a week. Began as a colliery engine-wright. Gained direct work experience in mining engineering /Apprenticeship
Robert Stephenson
Mechanical and structural engineer. Steam locomotive design/bridges
Self-taught with help from his father George. Attended a village school and then his father sent him to a private school and then apprenticed at Killingworth Colliery which he did not complete but then gained valuable experience in railway engineering.
Jedediah Strutt
Knitting machines worked with Richard Arkwright. Established a hosiery business in Derby. Built a number of mills and provided homes for his workers.
Apprenticed millwright . largely self taught.
 Joseph Wilson Swan
 Chemist and physicist. Inventor of improved electric lights.
 Apprenticed to druggist
 William Symington
Scottish engineer and inventor. Patented engines for road locomotion and steam boats.
Mechanic at Wanlockhead mine.
Thomas Telford
Civil engineer. Canal/road engineer e.g. Caledonian canal started in 1804. Innovative Aqueduct and bridge design and construction.
Attended a local parish school. Apprenticeship (Stonemason) Langholm and self taught.
Charles Tennant
Chemist and industrialist. Textiles/Dying/bleaching
Studied at a local school then apprenticeship as a silk weaver
 Sidney Gilchrist Thomas
 Inventor discovered how to separate phosphorus from iron in the Bessemer Converter.
 Self-taught and attended Birkbeck Institute.
 Robert Wilson Thomson
 Scottish inventor of the pneumatic tyre. Also made solid tyres for road steamers.
Richard Trevithick
Engineer and inventor. Steam engine (High-pressure steam engine 1800
Attended a local school but largely self taught and became a mining engineer
Jethro Tull
Agriculturalist. Seed drill (1701)/Introduction of improved farming methods
Oxford university
James Watt
Engineer and inventor. Steam engine design/Lunar Society. Carried out surveys for canals and harbours.
Taught by mother then some formal schooling-Greenock Grammar School and eventually gained experience as an instrument maker at Glasgow University. A mechanical genius who was very versatile.
Josiah Wedgewood
Chemist specialising in pottery/Lunar Society
Self educated/Apprenticeship (Pottery/thrower) but because of ill health broke the indenture and experimented with decorations, clay types and furnace technology.
 Charles Wheatstone
 Physicist involved in telegraphy with William Cooke (1806-1879).
Joseph Whitworth
Engineer and inventor. Machine tools/Screw threads. Planing machines, a power- driven self-acting machine and measuring machines. Established the Whitworth scholarships.
Attended his father’s school then as a boarder at a private school at Idle near Leeds but left at 14. Apprenticeship (Cotton spinning) and gained valuable work experience in Manchester and London engineering companies including the Maudslay workshops
John Wilkinson
Ironworker and inventor. Boring machine
Learnt working at his father’s side.
 Arthur Woolfe
1766-1837 .
 Improved the Watt steam engine





The Academic vs. Vocational Debate Revisited

The UNESCO Convention describes vocational education and training as:

  • “All forms and levels of the education process involving, in addition to general knowledge,
  • The study of technologies and related sciences
  • The acquisition of practical skills. Know-how, attitudes and understanding relating to occupations in the various sectors of economic and social life”

I believe this description states the true value of vocational qualifications and occupations. It is inclusive of all vocational disciplines and levels. It conveys the importance of competence/capability, generic and specialised skills, performance, problem solving and understanding. But for a number of reasons the situation in reality is very different, as this viewpoint will try and explain.

The history of technical and commercial education and training on this website identified and described the issues that have bedevilled the debates associated with academic and vocational education and training and the related qualifications and awards. In spite of a number of reviews over decades little has changed and the qualification system has continued to be dominated by the so-called gold standards of ‘A’ levels and full-time honours degrees. These qualifications have been protected by successive governments whilst technical, professional and vocational qualifications have been subjected to superficial periodic reviews and reforms that did not resolve the fundamental issues associated with these qualifications. These reforms have still not created a parity of esteem between the general/academic and vocational qualifications or even begun to counter/neutralise the negative perception of vocationally orientated qualifications and awards. The negative perception has deeply embedded cultural and historical roots as a result of the class structure. British education system like so much is driven be snobbery and class divisions.

One of the reasons is the debate is made more complicated by the way the word vocational is selectively perceived by people in spite of the description given above. Vocational qualifications and their associated occupations are perceived through a wide spectrum of interpretation. For example finance, law and medicine are seen as high status professions and involve study at degree level. Whilst other vocational occupations and their associated qualifications like automobile mechanics, hairdressing and plumbing are perceived as second class or of a lower status.
A number of factors can be identified that have created this wide distinction and the negative perception and attitude towards many technical, commercial and vocational education and training programmes, qualifications and occupations. These include reputation, understanding and relevance.

There is a strong correlation in this country between the status and reputation of vocational education and training and what occupation the learner is pursuing i.e. it is a social class/status issue reflecting the continuing presence and influence of social class distinctions. Although as stated above some vocational programmes are seen as being of high status, craft and trade professions are perceived as low status which are often lowly paid and part-time. Even when society places a higher status on some vocational occupations e.g. nursing and teaching these are not fully valued, recognised or well paid.

The persistence of inaccurately informed attitudes is fed in the education system initially by poor careers information, advice and guidance or that which does not counter the prevailing prejudices within society. Those in positions of influence and power in education have inevitably little or no direct experience of these vocational areas having come through the traditional academic route i.e. GCE’A’ level /degree and then direct into education. In fact the vocational education and training system is seen by all the key players and even the learners themselves as confusing because:

  • Teachers are often unable to provide professionally informed advice and guidance to the learners.
  • Employers experience difficulties in assessing the value of the multitude of vocational qualifications that exist and too often experience problems gauging the applicants ability and employment potential
  • Parents who continue to strongly influence their children’s choice and are often captives of their own educational background
  • College and University admission tutors experience problems trying to map the so-called equivalence of the multitude of vocational qualifications
  • The learners often have insufficient access to impartial, up to date and informed information, advice and guidance about courses and careers
  • There is little recognition that many vocational qualifications can be as economically rewarding as academic awards and more aptly lend themselves to developing one’s own business – these qualifications possess relevance


    The false perception that these lowly viewed vocations do not include knowledge and cognition aspects – there is a misapprehension that the manual/physical aspects of the job over-ride the intellectual/cerebral and many sadly still imagine that understanding, cognitive and cerebral aspects are marginal and it’s all about brawn over brain! Hence they are lowly valued vocations.

The situation has not been helped by the ever changing nature of the vocational qualifications themselves when compared with the academic qualifications. The latter have remained relatively unchanged for many decades. Another element that has held back any major reform of all qualifications is the obsession with curriculum frameworks and the concept of distinct qualification and occupational pathways or routes. Over the recent past we have had academic/general, general vocational, vocational, work-based etc qualifications and frameworks. This approach surely reinforces the perceived hierarchy of qualification and occupations and has in turn given rise to a plethora of terms e.g. craft, trade, operative, technician, technologist, professional and chartered et al.

Also there is a multitude of vocational qualifications that have been subjected to numerous reforms and this in turn has caused confusion and uncertainty as to their value to employers and other stake holders and end users. Interesting to note there are more HE degree titles than vocational qualifications but this is never highlighted in the debates!

Relevance is a very useful concept when describing vocational qualifications that are lowly perceived as they do more readily lend themselves to setting up one’s own business and offer greater opportunities to earn a living post-qualification. Sadly the usefulness of qualifications to the individual and the idea of constantly renewed economy through positive attitudes and values in relation to vocationalism hardly gets a look-in. Those who take the vocational route are tacitly or openly regarded as ‘uncultured’ -a classic response in a class ridden society!

Final comment
The major and fundamental issues are about the perception by society coupled with the ignorance, misunderstandings and inherent problems associated with vocational education and training qualifications and occupations. Essentially it is the issues associated with the social status of the occupations that the students have prepared and studied for.

‘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 .