A question of value

A question of value

02nd April 2019

A new report from the Social Market Foundation highlights the importance of overcoming the cultural bias against vocational education, writes Ricky McMenemy

The Social Market Foundation’s new report on how high-quality vocational education can boost the British economy and improve people’s job prospects is extremely welcome.

As Managing Director of Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, I know how important it is not only to support the continuous training and development of my staff, but also to recognize the value and quality of the work they do.

For that reason, I very much support the report’s call for both better quality vocational education and greater public recognition of people with advanced vocational or technical skills.

This includes an eye-catching proposal for people with advanced craft skills to be recognised as ‘master craftsmen’ or ‘master craftswomen’, a title intended as the vocational equivalent of ‘doctor’ in the world of academic study – with ‘craftsman’ and ‘craftswomen’ distinguishing those with a qualification equivalent to a university degree.

The aptness of the terminology can be debated (personally, I would prefer something less gender-loaded that ‘master’), as can its applicability to different areas of technical study (particularly those not traditionally thought of as crafts), but the core idea is right. We need to find ways to recognise those whose vocational studies have advanced to a good or exceptional degree, and to do so in a way that is readily understandable to the public.

High-level technical skills, as the report acknowledges, are critical to improving the UK’s dismal productivity record, as successive governments have recognised, though none to date has come up with a solution.

The current administration’s prioritising of apprenticeships is in large part a response to this productivity challenge. However, as a National Audit Office report published last month found, the government is unlikely to meet its target of 3 million apprenticeship targets by 2020, and, while there has been an increase in the number of high-level apprenticeship starts, it warned that many levy-paying employees were simply replacing existing professional development programmes with apprenticeships.

There are also long-standing concerns about the quality of apprenticeships and the age profile of those taking them up. Engaging young people in apprenticeships remains a particular problem.

This is partly because, for many parents, vocational education and apprenticeships are for other people’s kids. And, for the children and young people themselves, information, advice and guidance is often poor or skewed towards academic options, while our cultural obsession with A-levels and university – and our tendency to regard those who do not follow that route as failures – has a very serious distorting effect on choice and ambition.

These perceptions are extremely deep-rooted. However, the benefits of overcoming them are enormous, as other country examples, such as Germany, demonstrate. Cultural biases are difficult to change, but they do change, with enough commitment, support and political will. We need to show young people and their parents that vocational and technical study is an option they can be proud of taking.

Doing so is, for me, not just a matter of sensible economic management, if it about fairness and respect. People deserve recognition and esteem for the important jobs they do and for the skills they have. Unless we can ditch the idea that only the route that leads form A-level to university is of value, the road to higher productivity will be a very long one indeed.

It is clear from my own working life that success is about nurturing and recognising people’s talent and hard work. A business is only as good as the people who work in it. The same is true of an economy or a country.

If you want to get the best out of people, you have to show them that you value what they do and create a culture of reward and recognition that is fair and transparent, and does not reinforce what the cultural bias against vocational education.

Ricky McMenemy is Managing Director of Rules Restaurant, and is Chair of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

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