Battle in Print: The Tyranny of Skills

Alec Turner, 26 October 2006

The language and discourse surrounding and enveloping the Further Education (FE) sector has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years. For teenagers, FE was a choice with pretty clear and definable outcomes. For the boy or girl emerging from a comprehensive school with little academic inclination, the FE college was a place of learning one day per week during their period of apprenticeship. Away from the hurly-burly of the building site, garage workshop or hairdressing salon, the youngster would learn theoretical aspects of their chosen trade as well as having access to a period of general studies in recognition of the fact that life involved rather more than simply work. For those with a proven track record of successful academic study, full-time vocational courses were available, for instance in business studies, where students attended college five days per week with a timetable not dissimilar in structure and length to the type they would have been familiar with at school. Successful completion of the course fairly well guaranteed reasonable employment or a place at a polytechnic on a higher level course coupled with substantial periods of work experience.

To suggest that these were halcyon days would constitute an overstatement. That the demarcations existing within those colleges met everyone’s needs was simply not true. Nevertheless, attendance at an FE college represented a choice made by a robust individual, who accepted full responsibility for the consequences, good, bad or indifferent. Whilst outcomes could not be guaranteed, the vast majority of students would acquire valuable knowledge, facilitated by lecturers sharing their expertise and wisdom.

So what has changed? We should note first of all that the element of choice has all but disappeared. Although compulsory education is completed at the age of 16, there are virtually no employment opportunities or apprenticeships on offer to people of this age regardless of the individual’s inclinations, attributes or abilities. To all intents and purposes, entry into the labour market without a sheaf of certificates is a non-starter. However, it would be wrong to assume that the nature of the labour market has changed beyond recognition as a result of globalisation, the service sector overhauling the manufacturing sector in terms of contribution to GDP and the increased use of advanced technology, hence the need for qualifications and certification. If anything, the service sector generates a greater number of unskilled, routine jobs than the manufacturing sector and many people with PCs on their desks simply use them as glorified typewriters. Praise be to Microsoft.

In truth, despite the seemingly endless supply of and demand for qualifications, the economy is no more in need of them now they are available than it was when they were not. The qualification-hungry economy is a myth created by those who control the economy and the institutions of power. More than anything else, this situation is indicative of a government struggling to fill a void created by sporadic, low-level economic growth and a lack of vision for the future. The engagement created is quite artificial and requires some explanation.

The outcomes we are witnessing today, shaped by events 25 years ago may be quite unintentional. However, it can soon be whipped into the service of the state and those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. The events in question start in the 1970s with the shocks to the UK economy coming from a quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC, the collapse of the Bretton Woods ‘dollar standard’ and the rapid development of and industrialisation of the Asian ‘tiger’ economies on the Pacific Rim, utilising new technology and cheap labour. The primary victims of this economic downturn in the UK were working class teenagers: new job opportunities for school leavers disappeared as companies contracted or disappeared altogether. The initial response of the Conservative government was simply to cut the benefits system in the face of rising unemployment.

However, further means were required to contain mass youth disaffection. The government hatched a variety of make-work schemes with little or no prospects and the FE sector was corralled into the process, delivering life skills, study skills and any number of other skills which were grouped together as ‘skills for life’ or ‘employability skills’. Given the lack of job opportunities, ‘employability skills’ were simply a metaphor for youth containment. Their degree of success in terms of containment is somewhat debatable given the profusion of urban riots erupting in the 1980s and the glee with which youth attached itself to anything resembling opposition to a widely hated government, including the coal miners’ strike of 1984-5 and the poll tax riot of 1990.

The imperative for governments to contain and control youth in the absence of real opportunities was writ large and from these rather crude beginnings we have now moved into an all-embracing and expanding skills agenda. With each inquiry, report and subsequent government initiative related to FE, the skills agenda is further concretised. The latest offering from the DfES, Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances, is no exception in taking this agenda to new heights (DfES 2006). If we are to understand the real motivation behind ‘skills’ in FE then we must, first of all, reveal the contradictory and even nonsensical educational/training-speak emanating from government in this document. At this point, four quotes will serve us well:

The FE system must be the powerhouse for delivering skills at all levels that are needed to sustain an advanced, competitive economy…

Since 1997, participation in post-16 training has expanded, with total learner numbers rising from around 4 million in 1997/8 to around 6 million in 2004/5.

The proportion of our young people staying on in education and training remains scandalously low: the UK ranks 24th out of 29 developed nations. We lag well behind France and Germany….

The initial report in autumn 2005 by Lord Leitch on the skills needs of the economy in 2020 presents a daunting picture of the rate at which other nations such as China and India are improving their skills base… (DfES 2006: 3-4)

Firstly, FE cannot deliver skills at all levels. FE colleges are essentially places of learning and removed from the workplace. As such, any skills development is decontextualised and fairly meaningless. Skills development is best situated in the workplace. However, within the UK, employers have long shown a marked reluctance to invest in training, research and development or cutting edge technology, all of which would facilitate real skills development. With regard to participation rates, France and Germany’s economies are even more stagnant than the UK’s with Germany experiencing chronically high levels of unemployment. Meanwhile, China seems to understand the demands of a fast-growing economy rather well, delivering high quality general education to virtually all participating up to the age of 18. The lesson learned is that skills are best developed within the workforce on the back of the acquisition of knowledge, rather than replacing knowledge with superfluous and meaningless notions of skills.

The reality of the skills agenda is markedly different to anything the government might claim on its behalf. Since the shocks of the 1980s and the panics suffered by the elites in this country, FE has taken on a new role. It has become a residuum for the large number of young people a stagnant economy can no longer accommodate. Viewed in this way, we can better understand the politicisation of FE. Far from being a sector whose core purpose is to deliver education, it has now become the place where teenagers’ thoughts are policed. Rather than being a sector in which young people can learn a trade or job-specific skills, it is now the place where youngsters’ behaviour will be managed in line with the crude principles laid down by politicians, quangos and the captains of industry.

The slow trickling of knowledge away from vocational curricula becomes a flood as a consequence of the White Paper. Following on from Mike Thomlinson’s (2004) report, 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, the government has adopted his proposals for specialised diplomas in work-related sectors, to be launched in 2008. The step-change in the skills agenda is quite breathtaking. For several years, policy-makers have witnessed the abject failure of the wider or ‘soft’ key skills (Improving Own Learning and Performance, Working with Others and Problem Solving), largely because there was no element of compulsion and students and lecturers alike rejected them as tedious distraction from real learning. Re-branded for the new diplomas, these skills will devour curricula. The DfES has transformed Thomlinson’s Common Knowledge, Skills and Attributes (CKSA) into Personal, Employability, Learning and Thinking skills (PELTs). Whilst generic learning will comprise 26 per cent of a level 2 diploma curriculum and include Functional Skills in English, Mathematics and ICT as well as a project demonstrating PELTs, PELTs will be assessed in the remainder of the curriculum consisting of Principal and Additional learning. The six groups of PELTs recast the young people in our classrooms as team workers, self-managers, independent enquirers, reflective learners, critical thinkers and effective participators.

Each PELTs group is accompanied by a focus statement and six statements of outcome. Reading this exhausting list raises several questions in relation to the government’s mindset, not least of which is if student and lecturer alike are to manage and observe all of these focus statements and outcomes, where is the time for real teaching and learning? This problem seems to pale in comparison to the wider agenda of social engineering pursued by the government. Equally well-illustrated is both the distrust of and lack of confidence in FE lecturers held by those same people. For instance, the independent enquirer must support conclusions using reasoned arguments and evidence whilst the creative thinker must ask questions to extend their thinking. It would appear that the award of a good grade will no longer be indicative of a student working well and the lecturer recognising this, but that student and lecturer need reminding of that which underpins good teaching and learning. Given the current skills-based nature of teacher training curricula, littered as they are with competencies rather than challenging learning, perhaps this is not altogether surprising.

The major issue, though, is the moulding of behaviour and outlook that students have to undergo in order to meet the demands of these outcomes. The overall aim is highly instrumental and designed to inculcate a value system in young people who are plainly not ready to receive it at such an early stage in their lives, when they have insufficient experience or knowledge of the world to make such judgements about the good or moral life. Alongside a focus on values, the skills-based curriculum allows no space for the exercise of judgement by the learner. On the one hand, students will learn the injunctions of valuing diversity, learning emotional literacy and how vulnerable they are. They will ‘recognise that others have different beliefs and attitudes’, that they must ‘consider the influence of circumstances, beliefs and feelings on decisions and events’, that they will ‘evaluate their strengths and limitations’ and that they must ‘discuss areas of concern’. Having learned to value others’ beliefs, got in touch with their emotions and been told that reaching for the stars is to be ridiculed, they will then be in a position to ‘act as an advocate for views and beliefs that may differ from their own’.

The worlds of therapeutic counselling and education are merged quite seamlessly. Once the values are in place, a further string of outcomes will determine behaviour. Students will ‘play a full part in the life of their college or wider community’, ‘take responsibility showing confidence in themselves’, ‘adapt behaviour to suit different roles’ and ‘identify improvements that would benefit others’. Whilst any or all of these statements might make sense in certain contexts, they are, by and large, entirely contrived, artificial and meaningless in the classroom and within the context of learning. It would appear that the days of the independent teenager, striving to assert him or herself and making plenty of mistakes along the way, are numbered. Behaviour and emotions will be codified, regimented, measured, monitored and recorded on a daily basis. Within this regimented world of FE, it is difficult to know what the phrase ‘anticipating, taking and managing risks’ actually refers to in reality. In such a fragile environment, all actions can take on the appearance of risk.

The perverse consequence of this skills agenda is that the last thing developed is a skilled, competent, confident workforce-in-waiting. With every single element of a student’s basic functioning subject to an assessment decision, real life is suspended. Far from encouraging independence, this remorseless assessment of attitude and behaviour creates a new dependency. Anyone unfortunate enough to be rigorously forced through this process will become an ideal candidate for the world of lifelong learning. The inhabitants of this world, having been exhorted to accept and understand everyone else’s values, opinions and beliefs, will know no certainties or moral absolutes and lose all sight of direction and purpose. The only respite will be a further round of behaviour modification, courtesy of the skills agenda. The aggressive, thriving, dynamic workforce is a pipedream. The workers of the future will be forever looking over their shoulders, asking someone else whether or not they have got it right.

Finally, the irony of this skills agenda appears lost on those at the heart of pushing it – the Old Labour lecturers of 20 years ago who have now adopted New Labour clothes and positions of seniority in FE colleges. Does it not occur to them that their challenging general education was completely skills-free? Rather than furthering the social engineering and equal opportunities agendas of New Labour, skills-based curricula merely serve to further entrench the class divide leaving those FE students I teach forever where they started: near the bottom of the pile.


Alec Turner has worked in Further Education for fifteen years. He currently lectures at City & Islington College on the subject of Health & Social Care and is a Coordinator and Verifier for Key Skills. He is also a contributor and co-editor of ‘A Practitioner’s Guide to Further Education’, to be published early next year.


DfES (2006). Further Education: Raising skills, Improving Life Chances. Department for Education and Skills. 27 March 2006.

Thomlinson, M. (2004). 14 – 19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform: Final Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform. Department for Education and Skills. October 2004.

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