Friday, March 04, 2011

Education not job training

I spent several hours yesterday driving between the locations of various meetings. Whilst in transit I listened to an interminable debate on the radio about the latest study reportedly criticising the education system or more specifically the vocational qualifications on offer to teens. Having not read the report at the centre of the hype I have no reason to assume it was anything other than a well balanced academic tome but the public debate was anything but.

The obsessive, narrow-minded focus of the media and political digerati on education as job training [.."not preparing them for work"... " good to employers"... "...employers want..."... "irrelevant to employers"..."...never used it in my job..."] caused the build up of a seething head of steam in me until eventually I found myself barking at the radio on the way home from Milton Keynes yesterday evening:

"Education is NOT about job training. It's about producing well-rounded, tolerant human beings with the capacity to think critically and act rationally and ethically in the increasingly complex socio-economic-technological soup of the environment in which we live; and with the will and lifestyle to leave the world a slightly better place than when they entered it! The acquisition of certain skills that may be useful in the workplace is ONE emergent property of such a system but NOT the most important."

These kinds of public debates also provide a never-missed opportunity for certain media personalities to polish and parade their mathematical and scientific ignorance as a proud badge of honour - another of my pet hates. I wonder how impressive or how long a game of one-up-man-ship would last if they were boasting about an inability to understand words or never having read a book?

Do I use vector calculus, engineering or advanced structural & fluid dynamics, physics, chemistry, solid state electronics, thermodynamics or land law in my day job? Actually I have had reason to use many of these in the past couple of years as an external examiner but by and large no. They're not required for the educational administration that takes up a, sadly, ever increasing proportion of my days.  Do the critical systematic analytical thinking skills people acquire through studying advanced mathematics come in useful not just in the workplace but in life in general? You betcha! Luckily in spite of the increasing encroachment of admin duties, as an academic, I still occasionally get to engage in a range of intellectual pursuits some of that earlier academic study directly laid the groundwork for. But whether it is a direct foundation or not to whatever modern life is currently throwing at us that earlier study is never wasted - it is an integral part of whoever has engaged in it.

Do the politicos and media commentators understand this?  Well if they do it is not evident in their dominant belief that the education sector is a one-dimensional sausage machine for churning out job fodder to facilitate "what employers want".

I've had the priviledge of working with the Open University for nearly 16 years and meeting some amazing people in that time. I would not insult a single one with assumption behind the empty political thinking on education that they are nothing more than trainee workers and/or consumers.

Side note to "employers", whoever they may be: if you want someone to learn use your machines, staff the phones or stack the shelves 8 hours a day, then a university is not the right place to help with that. I haven't got your machines so can't teach people to use them. If you want someone to work for you and be a more capable all rounder with the ability to contribute to your business in ways you haven't even thought of yet then an education rather than narrowly focussed job training is what you're looking for.

But, in the spirit of caveat emptor, bear in mind that given that branches of all sectors of the UK education system have been driven to the edge of insanity and beyond, Mark Twain's warning that you should never let your schooling interfere with your education has rarely been more important.