Vince Cable has made the mistake of being accidentally correct

I’m not a huge fan of Vince Cable*, but two things strike me about his statement that “teachers know nothing about the world of work“. The first relates to general dissatisfaction I have with the nature of a lot of discourse about education, and especially about teachers: hordes of people turned up on Twitter berating Cable for having said it, and saying how mean he was being about teachers. The same thing happens every time Gove, or indeed Tristram Hunt, says anything about teachers: teachers complain they are being disrespected, as though no politician can be permitted to talk about education without first saying how absolutely lovely and hardworking teachers are. This is plainly absurd and a mark of a profession peculiarly uncertain about its status. Do we honestly need to be love-bombed by Westminster’s finest every time they speak about our field? Are we so unsure of the value of our work that we need politicians to tell us it is any good? It is a tedious discourse, taking offence when it’s probably best left lying where it is (which would, incidentally, have the effect of blunting a significant number of the DfE’s media attacks, but that’s a different matter). It was abundantly clear that Cable wasn’t writing off all teachers as idle shysters who’d managed to bandy access to a blackboard into a lifelong laze in front of the class, so the outrage was utterly unnecessary.

It was also unhelpful, because it obscured a chance to discuss something quite interesting (and this is my second point): Cable is pretty much correct. Cable’s point was clearly that teachers are not especially good at preparing their students for the world of work. Not only is this mostly true, I would argue that it is pretty much as it is supposed to be. Between myself and the state, quite a lot of money has been spent training to make me a history teacher. My job is to induct students as best I can into the discipline of
history. That I should necessarily be expected to also acquire to skills of a careers advisor and interview coach seems to me a misallocation of resources: I have one job the state pays me to do, why do I need another one?

This is not to suggest that schools shouldn’t take a very large role in careers training, but why expect a profession made up, in the main, of people who pursued academic training in a particular subject to suddenly acquire a profound insight into how to persuade organisations as diverse as Gregg’s and GoldmanSachs to give students a job. I’ve had five jobs since I left university: one I was elected to, and the other four were decided by interviews in schools, three of which involved teacher a demonstration lesson. None of these experiences are even remotely representative of the ways most students will find work. This requires dedicated attention and skills, yet career responsibility in schools remains largely an additional responsibly put on top of a teaching load. Of course, many such teachers do their jobs well, but inevitably most don’t have either the time or the space to focus on developing the strength and depth of careers advice, links to the local employment market and quality work discovery and work experiences that are required to make careers training truly effective. Fundamentally, this needs to be a role that belongs to someone full time; at present, the non-teaching full time staff of a school include admins, site supervisors, nurses, EWOs and data managers. In such ways are the things schools find important reflected. Full time careers officers in school are a vital part of improving careers advice.

But a final point, and this is what Cable should really have been criticised for: although schools should be the site of great careers advice, a significant portion of the responsibility should fall on companies (like those led by those Cable was talking to) themselves to build links to schools. That’s the message he should carry to them: if you want schools to help you, it’s time to help them.

* I’m not a huge fan of any of the Coalition LibDems, notwithstanding that their politics are more congenial to the Labour Party than their Tory colleagues: it will take a long time for the generation sold a pup by the LibDems on tuition fees to trust in politics again. They were probably right to put up fees, but when your only distinctive policy is that you won’t, and you make absolutely no effort to defend that policy (as the memoirs of the Coalitions negotiations make clear they didn’t) you’re engaging in pretty cynical politics.

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