The apprentice….too little, too late?

"Breathless" by Cornelia Parker.  Victoria and Albert museum

“Breathless” by Cornelia Parker. Victoria and Albert museum

Surely I cannot be the only person who has noticed the bidding war between the parties on the number of apprenticeships that will be created during the next government ?   Sometimes the current level of debate reminds me more of a game of Toptrumps than a serious attempt to get policy across, ah well!  The future does not look so good for all these apprentice vacancies in the light of research evidence reported by the Design Technology Association.  In their recent project they looked at what has been happening to the subject in schools recently. Now we already know that following some years of steady improvement the numbers of children studying Design Technology to GCSE and beyond has seen a significant decline; from a peak of 450,000 down to 230,000.  What might have been masked by the heroic efforts of schools to drive up results is the reality of what has been going on in schools.

DATA’s survey reveals that in a large number of schools the measures of progress decreed by the government, the so called Progress 8 and EBacc, have had some disastrous consequences.  Schools are driven to focus on these two measures by the consequences of failing an inspection.  The message that schools have taken from the government is that creative subjects are a diversion from the real purpose of education.  No amount of assurance that this was not the intention will alter the reality of what is happening around the country.  The majority of departments report a growing trend to focus on what are irritatingly called the more academic subjects that contribute to these progress measures.

This is particularly evident at the point where children make their option choices and decide on the subjects they will take at GCSE.  Now if you were a head teacher and one of your brightest pupils wanted to take something like Music, Art and Product Design you might want to celebrate his or her creative talent.  You probably would.  But wait a minute, if they do these what impact will that have on the schools performance?  Of course you want the best for your pupil but the existence of the school in it’s present form, not to mention your career, hang on those performance measures.

No head teacher is going to put themselves in this position of course, what they are increasingly doing is manipulating the options system, the form that any parent with a child of this age will have agonised over, the one that tells you that you can only choose this subject in that column and what a shame it is that all three of your subject choices only appear in the one column.  That does mean that you will have to chose just the one, of course you can carry on with your music in your spare time……….

Well now you know why I used an image of Cornelia Parker’s fascinating installation in the V&A, to paraphrase, “craftsmen’s art and music’s measure,” squashed and hung out to dry.  Once the kudos of a subject fades at GCSE and the number of students taking it drops then the already meager budget is called into question.  Soon the department starts to lose time with children at key stage 3, then of course there are really too many staff focusing on it and at least one of the design studios would make an excellent office for the new deputy head in charge of curriculum.

And that is exactly what is happening in a school near you.  The consequences are that design and art based subjects are shrinking in schools.  As the impact of the EBacc works through the system there will be fewer and fewer bright design talents going on to study the subject at higher education.   As the majority of Design Technology teachers coming into the profession are now from a design background the pool of talent to draw these people from shrinks.  We are already facing problems recruiting trainee teachers for Design Technology courses, only 44% of vacancies filled, , never mind the statistic that suggests that up to 50% will have left the profession within five years.

On the apprenticeship front things are just as bad.  Five years ago schools around the country were working hard on vocational education programmes.  With considerable imagination and the support of some major players from industry great things were happening and it seemed as if the stereotypical division between academic subjects and the others was eroding.  That changed overnight as the credibility of the subjects was thrown out by the current government via an announcement that ripped the value for the schools away from these courses.  The old messages about vocational education and apprenticeships has been dragged back to life as the government appeared to focus solely on university entrance.

Now we are faced with a building industry that cannot meet our demand for housing stock because it cannot recruit the talent it needs, STEM industries still crying out for suitable trainees and a skill gap.  David Cameron recently announced, “I desperately want this to be a country where children can make the most of their God-given talents, whatever their background.”  Not if those talents lie in the creative industries apparently.

Now I try to think the best of people so I really do think that this situation is the result of unintended consequences.  Nobody would set out to do this consciously and in possession of the evidence about the damage that would ensue.  Unfortunately I do not expect to hear any party announce that their policy for education will include parity of esteem for all subject, a truly open curriculum that really does allow all children to flourish by developing their own talents and a re emphasis on the creative aspects of education for all.

But wouldn’t it be nice…….?

7 Responses to “The apprentice….too little, too late?”
  1. Daggi says:

    What is the ‘real’ purpose of education? Mass-streaming the next generation into the factories of tomorrow by mass-producing everything for ‘cheap? In these days policicians direct what’s to be taught in schools which is dictated through Ofsted. So for the flair of these times is not just the decline in D&T, but also critical thinking, philosophy, languages and music. I see a lot of apathy that comes through indifference on both sides, parents and children (latter cannot be blamed). Or is it blatant ignorance by simply not knowing? But not all hope is lost, as we do not burn books and still celebrate our excellent writers (George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Gibson, Phillip K. Dick, Vladimir Nobokov…just to mention a couple.)…:-) The current education is a product, like everything else. Offered on the cheap…

    • You are right that the Ofsted agenda is prone to drive too much out of the curriculum, though no doubt they would say otherwise. I have seen a number of schools who set out to do there very best to provide a generous and balanced curriculum and stick to their beliefs but all of this is at risk as soon as the dreaded data shows a drop.

  2. Daggi says:

    That is pretty grim. My tip: home-schooling! As long as possible…:-))

    • You wouldn’t expect me to agree with this one, would you? Over a long career I have worked with an astonishing variety of colleagues an while I was very quick to identify what I thought were bad teachers I soon learned that many of them really reached and enriched the lives of a section of pupils for whom I was no use at all. That range of people is valuable and hard to replicate on a daily basis outside of a school environment.

  3. Sion says:

    Whilst I teach in Wales, this is exactly what is happening to us: the SLT and Governing Body have had to make some difficult decisions that are being driven by the introduction of the Welsh Bacc and a reduction in budgets based on a declining school demographic. It would be possible to fully back up this article by looking at us.

  4. Lucy Coleridge says:

    ​Hi Geraint

    Wouldn’t it be nice indeed! (but I have only seen educational policies miles from this!)

    I’ve just read your excellent post. You should facebook it, it would go viral with thousand of likes!

    I feel we are at sad times! I nodded too much as I read though your article and reflected on my current SLT option antics. Phone calls home to bright children…. speeches to parents about how important the baccalaureate is and how universities want it?? … yet prepared to say to my face that they do not sway children and believe in a balanced education. Odd …..our numbers have halved for next year in DT… let along poor Art who once had 80 students with regular results in the 80%’s A*-C (at this time you’d have thought that would count for something) down to 36 students and drama looking unlikely to run.

    What a disaster when I look at the true value of creative subjects…. the pride I see in the student as they finish their DT making. The skills they have developed, the long term gain. Yes I might of had to chaise ‘A’ regularly to turn up to a few extra sessions ……. and yes gifted and talented E doesn’t think it is as perfect as it should be but I know they will take away way more than a GCSE grade. Student ‘A’ can’t believe he’s actually made something that works. He can’t believe that he can take it home and his family can sit on it. The chair he designed and made! The pride and confidence that I see in his face can not be measured. Student B thinks he might have found something that he is actually good at. B thinks he’s like to work with CAD. He can’t believe that he might get a C in DT because in Geography ‘miss said I was an E and shouldn’t bother going any more and I’m getting D’s for everything!’ And as for gifted and talented E…. she’s already done A level maths but thinks DT offers her so much and has enjoyed making and working with a client so much she might do it instead of further maths next year…. my goodness! She can however eloquently explain what skills she is gaining and will tell SLT what she thinks! She is in the minority though and I worry our subject will not survive this continued facade!

    An open curriculum that does allow all students to flourish? wouldn’t that be amazing. I know that is all I would want for my own children. Alas this week I have to write formal assessments to give my year 7’s and year8’s who only rotated 3 weeks ago to test what they know. So they can practice doing formal assessments just because that is what the rest of the school is doing 6 teaching weeks after the last one! I’ll hold on to that face that brimmed with confidence and pride and hope that somehow, for some, I will still be able to facilitate other matching faces even if they can’t be measured… and clearly aren’t valued in the system. And that some who do choose are classrooms against the odds will go on to do great things in our world that needs creative, talented, innovative, attention to detail, resilient, problem solving students.

    Thanks for your post.



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