A few days ago, I attended a roundtable of senior education practitioners to talk about 'progression' in the education system. It was clear very quickly how far English education has to go in meeting the needs of *all* students. For it was clear in this event - attended by those who will have an enormous impact - that there was a cognitive bias at play. There was an obsession with university - the Russell Group in particular. This is a profound issue for the future of the majority of those educated in our schools.
Something struck me during the course of the conversation. Actually, despite a variety of backgrounds, there was almost a singular educational pathway in the room. Every single individual in there had achieved at school, gone on to university and then into a lifelong career in education. Their own experience was an educational blueprint. The only problem is that it is a blueprint that, even with a fair wind, will only apply to a minority. Whenever the conversation turned to those who were not going to University, it was focused on worklessness before flipping back to more chat about trips to Cambridge.
Don't get me wrong. Aspiring to go to university is fabulous. An enlightenment education is precious. There should be absolutely no social, financial, or cultural barriers for any child with the compunction and capability to pursue such an education. The choice to go down this route should be kept open as long as possible within the education system. It is the focus on and bias towards this route that is problematic.
The strangest moment in the meeting came when one participant declared that you are fit for work after a university degree in a way that you aren't following an apprenticeship. Paging Lord Sugar. At the heart of all this is the utterly absurd notion of an academic and vocational divide. The strangest thing of all is that Cambridge University itself sees such a divide as nonsense. That's why medicine, law, management, education and computer science sit alongside classics, history and natural sciences.
The simple fact is that the majority who don't go down the liberal education route will need to weave academic, technical and vocational knowledge together. This may involve higher education and it may not. You might progress to higher education after school and you might do an apprenticeship adding higher education qualifications as you go and as needed. There is nothing inferior about focusing on a career as opposed to your mind. Enlightenment comes from practice too.
So what is your child going to have: a career or a job? You see how the very language we use applies a status. Career is at the top of the tree and means university. Job is something else and we don't really know what it means - it's a dustbin category. But most 'jobs' in the future will be 'careers'. Until our educational leaders realise the quite fundamental ways in which our education system, curriculum, leadership, ethos has to change to meet the needs of those who will pursue careers but not advance straight into university after school, we will be letting down millions.
It may sound as if the concern here is with elitism within education but that isn't right. It's a concern at elitism for a few and mediocrity for the rest. The real concern is the lack of appreciation there may be for the diversity of routes to success increasingly available to our young people. It's not about 'parity of esteem'; it's about understanding different routes to success.
When all else fails those who cling to our current narrow view of education say that 'education should be about more than work and earning.' This is revealing too. Who's to say that university is the single source of enlightenment? It can also be found in craft, technique, cooperation, fellowship. These are as likely to be found in the world of work if not more so. Until we stop subconsciously categorising kids by whether they will do a 'job' or have a 'career' then we will be failing the majority. That is hardly success.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His new book ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ is now available.