As the Tory leadership battle continues this weekend saw both Truss and Sunak throwing the spotlight onto education. As with all their Tory-pleasing soundbites both had come up with what many people perceived to be radical ideas.

Now at the moment, I consider myself to be stranded in some political wasteland. Previously I considered myself a ‘moderate’ Labour supporter with a touch of Liberalism thrown in for good measure, yet more recently I, like many others, seem to be searching around for a party that truly does ‘fit’ with what I believe. The only thing that I’m 100% confident of is that I’m 0% Tory.  A party notoriously out for themselves, supporting the rich whilst so many in the UK go without just doesn’t sit well with me at all – call me old-fashioned.  So nobody could be more surprised than me when I suddenly started to take a positive interest in what Truss and Sunak were saying over the weekend.

Truss went all in for nothing with plans to completely overhaul the education system in the UK, with the headline-grabbing soundbite of changing Higher Education’s academic year. She suggested stopping the Summer rush of waiting for the exam results and then claiming places, and changing it to a “we know our results. . . give us a place” sort of system. 

The fact of the matter is that we’ve been stuck in an archaic educational system for decades. Sure it’s been tweaked within an inch of its life over the years, out went O Levels, in came GCSEs, exams and continuous assessment scrape by together as unharmonious bedfellows, as we remain adamant that a 3-hour memory test is still the best way to ascertain who’s academic. Of course, the result of the current system is a societal model that labels people as intelligent or not at 16 years. It places untold pressure on our teens to achieve success at a time that is already really hard – adolescence. The system doesn’t take the “whole person” into consideration – so those teens battling illness, trauma, and basic demographic issues are issued an helpful label before they’ve had a chance to work out who they really are.

Then thanks to Tony Blair’s vision of a world where 50% of young people went to university (university being perceived as the only successful route into the workplace), we’re now left with the systemic issue of what about the rest? The role of vocational training has been diminished, with funding (or lack of) quickly following, apprenticeships are forever changing but never for the better, BTECs (once deemed for the academically less gifted) have decreased in real-world value. 

So I think that Truss is onto something with her ‘shake it all up approach’, except of course, as with every Truss soundbite, there appears to be no real substance or plan behind the headline.

Meanwhile, Sunak has gone for the easy target of limiting the degrees that don’t lead to economic growth or to put it more bluntly, let’s get rid of arts and the humanities. For some bizarre reason, the Tories love the idea of vandalising the arts in the UK, failing to fully recognise it seems that the arts are all around them, and if it wasn’t for the arts their worlds would be much sadder. It’s like they don’t correlate that the opera, ballet, theatre, and the tv that they watch have all evolved from years of training, vocational training that is.

However, I do believe that Sunak is onto something too. Off the top of my head, I could name a number of universities that are currently offering performing arts degrees that are not fit for purpose. I can name the universities that went from offering one or two brilliant performing arts courses to offering a portfolio of performing arts courses. . . most of which were not and are not fit for purpose. It’s the basic law of economics and supply and demand. Performing arts courses are hugely oversubscribed, predominantly because unlike more academic studies you can’t keep cramming students into a lecture theatre, so the courses are restricted by the numbers that they can teach at one time. So the demand is huge but the opportunities are small. Step forward opportunistic universities looking to create other revenue streams.

In theory, this is great right? More courses = more opportunities, however in reality this does not play out. We’re seeing courses that are claiming to get people industry-ready offering ridiculous contact hours of just 12-16 week. Absolutely impossible to build up a skillset within that timeframe. So the courses focus on private study or peer devised modules, so the students “think” that they’re training, but in reality, they’re simply mucking about with their friends.

On some of these courses, the staff are woefully unqualified to teach their subject, yet they’re attempting to teach the next generation how to enter an industry that they have no first-hand knowledge of. I mean it’s bonkers, yet they’re all still oversubscribed. Such is the legacy and myth around a university education, parents would rather their children go to study at an ill-equipped university than wait for a place at a college that can truly deliver the goods because they believe that the very mention of the “degree” will get their child a job.

As I note every single time, a university can knock out a quick box-ticking degree course in no time at all, that course, regardless of how inadequate it is, will automatically be eligible for a government funding stream. Sunak is right to want to audit some of those courses. I would like to think that the money that they’d save on the “not fit for purpose” courses would be instantly rerouted into all the amazing courses out there that truly deliver results. I’d also love to think that Sunak would expand his thinking and actually place some value on vocational training – however, I realise that this would truly be the Christmas miracle that we’ve been waiting years for.

Whoever wins the leadership race there is so much work to do in education, and I guess the only thing that we can all be sure of – is that neither of them will put in that work

As always the comments are open and I’d love to hear what you think