Relaunching Rab Butler’s dream for education

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Rab Butler’s milestone 1944 Education Act, which made secondary school free for all for the first time, was described by its architect as “the spearhead of social reform”. Butler’s Act paved the way for a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools to ensure all young people could thrive, whatever their tastes or talents.

It is so sad that, in the following 70 years, his dream was never given a chance to live. Many grammar schools came and went, destroyed by 
socialist ideologues in the late 1960s and 70s. Just as disappointing, the great vision of technical schools went unfulfilled. Generations of young people with practical talents were denied the opportunities available to their peers in places like Germany – leaving Britain with a skills gap that made us less competitive than our neighbours.

Now, with our nation preparing for life outside the European Union, firms which have become reliant on migration to fill jobs sense that the tide is turning. It is time to make up lost ground; to elevate the practical.

To that end, the chancellor’s announcement of the creation of new T-levels, the most important reforms to post-16 qualifications in decades, was music to the ears of those who have spent years highlighting the significance of technical education.

I’m proud of my legacy as Further Education Minister – the creation of 2.4 million apprenticeships in the past six years, with an estimated three million more by 2020. I sought, too, the overdue recognition of practical learning; too many school children have been led to believe that technical accomplishment is less significant than academic prowess, and that a university degree is the only thing that counts. By relegating practical learning to a status below its desserts, we have left ourselves with more to do to catch up.

Now, with the new T-levels, we can boost the status of technical skills, and simplify the unnecessarily complex mix of qualifications which often baffle teachers, learners and employers. The chancellor announced 15 technical training routes for 16 to 19 year-olds and a work placement for every student, with more funding to help support this overhaul of vocational education.

Elevating the practical is 
vital to encourage more young people to take up the apprenticeship schemes which will prepare them for the workplace of tomorrow. Along with plans for a new age of grammar schools we can, at last, realise Rab Butler’s vision – so ensuring that the next generation are equipped with the skills and qualifications they need for the challenges of the future.