50 years on

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 6 August 2014

This is the 50th blog that I have written for Training Journal – a golden anniversary. I therefore thought I’d mark the occasion by offering some general reflections.  In fact August 2014 is the occasion of another golden anniversary. Fifty years ago this month, as a sixth-former in Cardiff, I was apprehensively awaiting the results of my A-levels.

I say apprehensively rather than anxiously because I thought I would do badly.  I was a pupil at a highly selective old-fashioned grammar school. I was an awkward individual in an environment that espoused old-fashioned class values. Despite the fact that it was a state school, prefects were called ‘sir’; we didn’t compete at sports against other local schools, preferring a fixture list made up of public schools.  What was far worse, however, was the school’s total concentration on the brightest and ablest pupils. The aim was to get at many of them as possible into Oxbridge, thus maintaining the school’s reputation and ensuring that it was the first choice of most of the children (or rather most of the parents) in the city.

As it happened I did rather better at my A-levels than I thought.  I made the required grades to read maths at Exeter; it was a disastrous choice of both subject and university and I left at the end of the first year. Subsequently, life took a much better turn and I went on to read Economics at the new University of Lancaster. I will always be grateful to a tutor at the Workers’ Educational Association who encouraged me on this path. By contrast, my last conversation with my old school headmaster ended with him telling me that I would do well in life but “a boy like you should never go to university”. Thank heavens for the upheavals of the 1960s!

This experience led me to recognise a very important distinction: between education as a sort mechanism and education as a process for individual development. The Cardiff High School educational model was designed round using examinations and tests to differentiate and then to put all the resources behind the ablest.  This is easy, arguably lazy, education.  If they are motivated bright children teach themselves – they just need to be pointed in the right direction.

So what has all this to do with learning, training and development? I would argue that this distinction is of more importance than might at first appear. One of the great satisfactions of working as a trainer in an organisation is that you are helping people to become more effective at what they do. This is what I would call education as a process for development. Generally, we do not wish to differentiate and sort in a corporate training situation.

Let me give the example of performance management and appraisal. Having worked in a number of organisations, in both public and private sectors, I am convinced that the effectiveness of the annual performance round is the best indicator of what might be called the ‘human resource health’ of the organisation. We, therefore, want everybody, at all levels, to understand the purpose and principles of the system and for all managers to be able to play their part effectively.  The more the better.  We would never test and grade at the end of our training course.

There is an important ideological distinction between these two philosophies of education. Without anyone noticing it, there is an undercurrent in the skills policy debate. Michael Gove is an aggressive economic neoliberal who believes in the effectiveness of market forces; this leads him to emphasise tests and exams or ‘education as a sort mechanism’.  It was almost certainly his intervention that led to the proposal that all apprenticeships should be graded [1].  This proved not to be acceptable to employers and the policy is in a state of confusion.  By contrast, Vince Cable, at Business, Innovation and Skills would probably be much more sympathetic to the perspective of education as a process for individual development. Unfortunately, his main current aim seems to be to distance himself from the coalition’s economic policies while at the same time remaining in his post.

My view is that we need to be clear and honest in our ideology before we even begin the process of constructing effective policy. For my part I’d like to see more and more young people acquire skills and I haven’t any great concerns about standards. I believe that employers will be able to sort it out in the long run.  Sadly, however, we appear to be entering the next general election without any worthwhile debate on our vision for education and training. Instead we will see the political parties competing on the narrow agenda of who can deliver more apprenticeship places – however they are defined. It is time to raise our game and give all of today’s young people, whether A-level students or not, better opportunities and a better future.

[1] See my previous TJ blog To grade or not to grade February 2014



About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com

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