Elite sixth forms: a class idea?

In a desperate attempt to divert attention from the mess in Downing Street, the government recently announced a flurry of ill-considered ’new’ policies. One was a proposal to develop a cadre of “elite sixth forms” which would “ensure talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the highest standard of education this country offers.” I will return in another article to just why this is such a bad idea. I want here to focus on a very revealing sub-plot.

As widespread hostility to the idea of new sixth forms became evident, a researcher at one of the less neanderthal Conservative think tanks, Bright Blue, thought it might be helpful to broaden the debate. Ben Gadsby, writing in the education journal FE Week, suggested that we might create “a suite of new sixth forms that specialise in hospitality, catering, caring – a state version of famous nannying institution Norland College”.

Where on earth to start?

A good place might be an article I wrote over seven years ago in that same journal.  It is reprinted here with the kind permission of its founding editor, Nick Linford. Although the personalities have changed, the issues are fundamentally the same and it illustrates why technical education in England is in such difficulty.

The idea that the problems of English further education can be solved by creating a new cadre of elite colleges was a bad idea when suggested by Tristram Hunt, bad when trailed as government policy by Vince Cable, and bad now it has been officially launched by Matthew Hancock. Despite the unusual distinction of endorsement by all three major political parties, the idea that segregation leads to success ignores all the lessons of history and risks damaging, rather than developing, progression routes to advanced vocational study. Fundamentally, however, it is wrong because it is suffused with the corrosive prejudices of the English class system.

“Class prejudice in England is so deeply ingrained that it is easily overlooked.  Consider, for example, the defence of engineering, endlessly quoted in almost every discussion of the subject: “people think it’s all about men with oily rags”. It is true that engineering as a discipline can be a demanding theoretical subject, but the unspoken assumption is that it’s understandable, even acceptable, to look down on men who work with their hands and with the apocryphal oily rag. Those men (and women) who keep our vehicles safe, keep the lights on in schools and hospitals, and keep the wheels of industry turning are obviously less worthy of our respect than those who work in clean suits at a desk: so obviously that it’s not worth stating.

“The unspoken assumption behind the elite colleges proposal is that it will remove those studying the more abstract aspects of vocational programmes from those with oily rags and grubby overalls, who are to be left behind in their local technical colleges. This will add to their status, though at the expense of those left behind, since status is a zero-sum game. It is the same prejudice that taints the otherwise laudable development of University Technical Colleges – they make it clear to everyone that they focus on ‘clean’ technical subjects while the oily rag men go to studio schools.

“Although they will gain in status from being distanced from those who get their hands dirty, the new vocational vanguard will not make it into the social elite. This is why we need to create new institutions despite having a range of world-class universities delivering high-level technical skills. The clue as to why, can be found in another class-based mantra of middle England – a profession of regret that the admirable polytechnics became universities.

“Underpinning these expressions of concern about the ‘loss’ of polytechnics is a deep mistrust of mass higher education. The polytechnics, like the CATs before them, did not abandon technical studies when they changed their name. Far from being ‘lost’, their applied and technical students gained the status of a university degree. The real concern is that too many did, undermining the English assumption that degree level study is only for the elect. They may also have got ideas above their station in life by having studied alongside those following non-technical disciplines – fine when offered to the few in a traditional university but somehow unacceptable when made more widely available.

“This is why the elite colleges, despite their name, will aspire mainly to ‘sub-degree-level work’. The clue, as they say, is in the name. The intention is to develop a corps of non-commissioned officers, given a little status by their separation from the foot soldiers but under no illusion that they dine at the top table.”

Seven and a half years on, what has changed? 

University Technical Colleges are struggling, both educationally and financially, with most half empty. Studio schools, their secondary modern-style siblings, are also failing: “trapped in a cycle of decline” according to a review by the Institute of Public Policy Research. Hardly anyone has heard of them. The performance of National Colleges, launched with a fanfare in 2016, has been catastrophic, with most disappearing without trace. Yet we now see the same idea reborn as Institutes of Technology

Will policymakers ever learn?

Part of the problem seems to be that government will listen to almost anybody who has an opinion about vocational education except those actually working in and managing the sector. I’m sure that Mr Gadsby is a decent chap, and meant well, but the fact that his best example of quality vocational education is a private college for posh nannies suggests his familiarity with English further education is, at best, slight.

A further issue is a lack of policy memory in the Department for Education. It’s possible to forgive politicians for not knowing that their bright new idea has been tried and found wanting several times before. It’s harder to forgive civil servants whose role should include providing continuity.

Most fundamentally, however, the besetting problem of English education is an obsession with segregation, with stratification and with hierarchy. It is the view that excellence can only ever be available to a minority. It is reflected in a norm-referenced exam system that guarantees that substantial numbers of children are labelled as failures. It is at its most odious when, as part of a so-called ‘levelling up agenda’, deepening social divisions masquerades as championing the disadvantaged.