Michael Gove – 2014 Speech on Vocational Education


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey on 3rd March 2014.

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

It’s a huge pleasure to be here at McLaren today – during what must be a brief and exceedingly busy period before the grands prix roar into action.

As this incredible setting shows – more like a Bond villain’s lair than anywhere I’ve ever spoken before – McLaren are world leaders in technological innovation; constantly and quite literally reinventing the wheel, to make it ever faster, ever more aerodynamic, ever more efficient.

This restless pursuit of excellence builds on an impressive sporting heritage.

Since their first race in 1966, McLaren have won more grands prix than any other Formula 1 marque – with champions like Ayrton Senna, James Hunt, Niki Lauda and, of course, Lewis Hamilton.

But just as important as a glorious past is a bright future.

Which is why McLaren are taking part in helping to train the next generation of engineers, scientists and inventors.

Through apprenticeships, trainees, internships, work experience and as STEM ambassadors, McLaren are every bit as much a world-beating educational institution as Oxford University or Imperial College – introducing young people to the dazzling potential of science and technology, and training them to play their part.

The future is coming faster than we think

It’s fitting that I’m here where educational and technical innovation meet, because I want to talk today about the future relationship between education and the world of work.

I want to do so because the world of work is changing at high speed – and we are about to see that change accelerate at dramatic pace.

If young people are to be prepared for that radically changing world of work, we need a plan to change our education system – and to secure their future.

In particular, we need to end the artificial and damaging division between the academic and the practical – the apartheid at the heart of our education system.

We need to ensure that more students enjoy access to the academic excellence which will make a practical difference to their job prospects in a fast-changing world.

And we need to ensure that practical, technical and vocational education is integrated with academic learning to make both more compelling for all students in our schools, and more valuable in the new labour market.

It’s important to stress, of course, that education is about more, much more, than preparation for employment.

It’s an initiation of every new generation into the best that’s been thought and written. It’s an exploration of all the riches of human creativity. And a preparation for the moral responsibilities of adult life.

But education is also – critically – the means by which we can give each individual the chance to shape their own future; their future employment as well as their cultural, social and moral lives.

The right education – the acquisition of the right skills – can enable any individual to take control of their economic destiny rather than being left at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control.

And getting every child’s education right is central to our long-term economic plan for the country.

We cannot afford to leave any intellect untapped, any pair of hands idle, because the security we want for all can only be achieved by a first-class education for all.

Because of the economic forces which are reshaping our world now, getting education right has never mattered more.

Globalisation – the opening up of markets which followed the collapse of communism – has meant that those with the right skills have a wider choice of jobs and career paths, and goods and services, than ever before.

But it has also meant that those with the wrong skills – or no skills – have found their opportunities narrowing, as employment opportunities migrate to nations with lower labour costs, or technology renders more and more traditional jobs redundant.

What economists call the economic return to skills – basically the extra amount you earn for being well educated – is remorselessly high. And for those with good maths skills the premium on their earnings is even higher.

But while globalisation has had a powerful effect on our economic destinies, other changes – only now beginning to be felt – will be even more dramatic.

Technology is poised to change the world of work in a manner as dramatic as the shift from a predominantly agricultural to a predominantly industrial society which advanced nations underwent in the 19th century.

The second machine age – the robolution

We are embarking on a second industrial revolution – a new machine age.

Developments in a variety of fields – especially artificial intelligence – are changing how workplaces operate. Machines which once accelerated production because processes could be automated are now increasingly capable of operating autonomously. Cars which were once assembled by robotic technology are now being driven by robotic technology. I know – I’ve been in one. And Google’s driverless car is a far safer presence on the road than any vehicle which has me behind the wheel.

These breakthroughs – in artificial intelligence, robotics, and related fields – are changing every workplace we know.

It’s no longer simply routine manual labour which is capable of being performed better by machines than by men.

From train driving to surgery, auditing to merchandising, technology is reshaping the whole world of work. It is striking that the major tech companies who have done so much to shape our modern lives – like Google – are moving so speedily and heavily into this area.

Google’s driverless car is not a careless thought experiment on the part of a company which has hitherto been predominately virtual and digital rather than physical and mechanical.

It is a leading indicator of where tech is taking us next. Google has been investing very heavily recently in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics – with its acquisition of the robot firm Boston Dynamics, the smart thermostat make Nest Labs and the British AI company DeepMind.

And in case anyone thinks Google’s moves are just California dreaming, consider what’s happening in east Asia.

Fujitsu, the world’s third largest maker of IT products, is re-shoring its PC and mobile phone manufacturing from Thailand and the Philippines back to Japan because multifunction robots can solder and assemble parts more cheaply and efficiently than workers in developing nations.

Canon, the world’s leading supplier of digital cameras, has said it is “fully robotising” its digital camera and lens factories.

Similar advances in technology have meant that Hewlett-Packard and the Chinese computer firm Lenovo are increasing their production in Japan to take advantage of the greater efficiency and lower costs of fully automated – robotised – production.

Of course we’ve had robots on production lines for decades now. But it’s often the case that the real power of a new technology is only felt when its potential is liberated by other innovations.

Computers had been around for decades before the world wide web generated the changes which mean each of us now conducts so much of our lives via smartphone, tablet and laptop.

Similarly, breakthroughs in IT are proving to be a decisive, disruptive innovation changing how we deploy robots. The manufacturing process is now altered not by retooling production lines but by reprogramming machines with improved software – and in particular, by giving them the power to perform a complex series of actions.

When we place these changes in the context of other rapidly accelerating innovations – in speech recognition, vision sensors and wireless networking – it’s clear we are reaching an inflection point, when actions hitherto thought impossible to perform by machines become actions which it’s increasingly obsolete to leave to humans.

In the first industrial revolution, machines multiplied a thousandfold the physical power mankind could deploy.

In this second revolution, machines are poised to multiply by a similar factor our mental creativity.

Making all these opportunities more equal

These changes promise to make goods and services more abundant – and to allow human ingenuity an unimaginably broader canvas to work on.

But there are also dangers.

For those of us committed to social justice, to respecting the innate dignity of every human being, to giving every individual the chance to flourish economically, socially and emotionally, these changes constitute a profound challenge.

How can we avoid growing unemployment as technology displaces labour from jobs which now disappear? How can we ensure that, for example, those who currently, or might in the future, drive our tube trains or generate purchase orders and invoices, find jobs? How can we ensure young people have the ability to adapt to technological changes – to take advantage of them – to lead richer lives with more opportunities?

How can we prepare young people for jobs that don’t yet exist in industries that haven’t yet been invented in a world changing faster than any of us can predict?

And how can we ensure that these changes – whose ramifications will affect the whole shape of our economy and our society – can be harnessed to make our economy overall stronger and our society fairer?

The answer is by ensuring we implement all the elements of our long-term economic plan – and, critically, by pressing ahead with our reforms to improve schools.

Other jurisdictions are following the path we’ve set.

They are giving heads greater control of their schools.

They are enhancing the prestige of teaching by raising the bar on quality.

And they are ensuring curricula and exams are more rigorous – with a proper emphasis on the centrality of academic knowledge in the education available to all.

Giving all children access to high-quality teaching in maths, English, physics, chemistry, biology, languages and the humanities to the age of 16 provides every child with the opportunity to flourish whichever path they subsequently choose.

And more than giving children choices, that academic core also trains our minds to be critical and creative.

The work of cognitive scientists, most helpfully analysed by the University of Virginia’s Daniel T Willingham and buttressed by the research of educationists like ED Hirsch, has shown that the best way to develop critical thinking skills is to ensure all children have a firm grounding in a traditional knowledge-based curriculum.

As Willingham has pointed out,

Surprising though it may seem, you can’t just Google everything. You actually need to have knowledge in your head to think well. So a knowledge-based curriculum is the best way to get young people ‘ready for the world of work’.

Elsewhere, he said:

Knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: it actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more – the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes – the very ones that teachers target – operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

And it’s demonstrably the case that the higher order thinking skills we need – even and especially, in the sphere of technology – can be and are successfully cultivated through traditional intellectual disciplines.

Mark Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard – and laid the groundwork for his future success – after close study of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew at school. Sergey Brin of Google and Sal Khan of the Khan academy were gifted university mathematicians. Martha Lane Fox – the government’s digital champion – read ancient and modern history at university and Dido Harding, the chief executive of TalkTalk, who has been responsible for huge steps forward in e-safety, studied politics, philosophy and economics at university.

It is striking that the jurisdictions which have seen huge improvements in their schools in recent years – such as Poland – have been those which ensure all children have access to a stretching academic curriculum until at least the age of 17. No matter what path students choose – whether academic or vocational – they all share a core academic foundation on which to build.

And that desire to overcome false divisions, unhelpful stereotypes and the premature setting of young people into tracks from which they cannot later deviate lies behind our approach to education.

And just as last month I set out how we can tear down the Berlin Wall between state and independent schools, so today I am setting out how we can end the apartheid between academic and practical learning.

It’s critically important that we recognise the value of traditional academic disciplines – and should not allow them to be abandoned, neglected, or thought of as suitable only for a minority of students.

But we must also ensure that we are alive to the ways in which technology and other innovations are now in a position to help us to overcome the unnecessary and harmful divide between the academic and the technical – between thinking and doing – which has held us back as a nation.

Bringing together thinking and making

For centuries since the Renaissance, dominant education models have had a strict separation between, first, what is regarded as learning and, second, training people to make things.

This separation has helped to generate – and perpetuate – class divisions. It has, in societies like our own, encouraged people to think in terms of intellectual castes – thinkers or makers, artists or designers – those happiest in the realm of the conceptual and those who prefer the hard and practical.

Now, thanks to technological developments and groundbreaking innovators, this is changing.

We can now reunite making things with the training of the intellect.

Take computer science, for instance. There’s no doubt that it’s a demanding intellectual discipline: computer sciences courses at Cambridge or Stanford are every bit as rigorous – if not more so – than degrees from our best universities in pure mathematics or classical languages.

But one of the great virtues of computer science is that it enables students to create things of both utility and beauty even as they push forward the boundaries of intellectual exploration. The apps on our smartphones are the application of conceptual scientific thinking in the most immediately practical way conceivable.

Sadly, however, we’ve been failing to provide our children with the opportunities to think and make anew in this way. For years now we’ve introduced students to computers at school through an undemanding – indeed, frankly dull – ICT curriculum.

It taught students how to fill in spreadsheets and prepare slideshows, how to use applications which were already becoming obsolete – rather than enabling them to see how they could create new applications, by offering them the chance to code, to let their imaginations roam, to build their own future.

From this September, however, we will be teaching every child in the country how to code and programme, how to master algorithms and design their own apps, through our new computing curriculum.

It’s been drawn up by industry experts alongside teachers and academics. And it’s unique among major economies. As Eric Schmidt of Google has said, this has made England a world leader – other countries are now considering how to follow our lead, including those ahead of us in the PISA tables.

It’s not just in computing, though, that students are being given new opportunities to think and make in the most innovative way possible.

In the existing design and technology curriculum students have had the opportunity to work with traditional products – wood and metal in resistant materials, wool and silk in textiles – to learn traditional methods of production. There is – and always will be – a demand for skilled artisanship of this kind. Indeed there has been a welcome resurgence of demand for the work of individual makers.

But now technology is radically redefining what it is to be a maker.

In the last few years there has been a huge improvement in the technology for – and a huge reduction in the price of – 3-dimensional fabricators, sometimes known as ‘3D printers’.

Machines that used to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds have shrunk in price dramatically. There are now 3D printers costing only a thousand pounds or less that are available to home hobbyists, small businesses, and – critically – schools.

The democratisation of access to this technology is already changing what we understand by design, by manufacturing and by artisanship. For example, Chris Anderson – the former editor of Wired – now uses 3D printers to build parts for his pioneering drone company.

These technologies are also dramatically changing education. Building on this opening up of access to manufacturing for all, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms runs a course called ‘How to make (almost) anything’ – which has rapidly become hugely popular.

Two years ago in England, we began a pilot scheme to introduce 3D printers to English schools. It was only small but it gave pioneers a chance to learn. We are now working with teaching schools to develop training and best practice in how 3D printers can be used in teaching a range of subjects in schools.

And we have also overhauled our design and technology curriculum with the help of tech innovators like James Dyson to include the principles of 3D printing – and to place greater emphasis on the links with maths, science and computing.

I have already seen in some of our best schools how an attachment to traditional intellectual disciplines and modern technological innovation sit side by side. In Holland Park school – for example – the same students who study A level texts like King Lear at the age of 14 are also using 3D printers to design individual products which could take their place tomorrow on Ikea’s shelves.

But these technological advances hold out the promise of even greater scope for creativity and intellectual adventure in our schools and colleges in the future. If they can integrate the new science curriculum, the new maths curriculum with its emphasis on mathematical modelling, the new computer science curriculum, and 3D printers, we can give pupils the chance to do science themselves and to see the connections between physical principles, mathematical models, computer programs, and the art and design of engineering physical objects.

This will help in 2 directions – on one hand, it provides a new route for pupils to learn about old principles in physics, chemistry, and biology; and on the other, it provides a new route for pupils to learn about the connections between mathematical models and physical reality, with computers as an intermediary.

And it also provides a fantastically exciting way of reuniting learning and making things. As Neil Gershenfeld, the computer pioneer and head of the Center for Bits and Atoms, says, it ends the distinction that schools have lived with since the Renaissance.

Gershenfeld has seen how his own children have taken enthusiastically to the new opportunities technological innovation has brought. As he said, “I’ve even been taking my twins, now 6, in to use MIT’s workshops; they talk about going to MIT to make things they think of rather than going to a toy store to buy what someone else has designed.”

I think that the innovations Gershenfeld has talked about and helped advance will both enhance traditional aims in schools and colleges and also enthuse and inspire many children who have not been interested in traditional science lessons.

Because of the various changes we have made – which I think will be supported by the other political parties – we have a chance to lead in this fascinating new educational field.

Instead of thinking some students do GCSE triple science, others do hands-on courses; instead of thinking some students might aspire to intellectual exploration at university, others should prepare to be hewers of wood and drawers of water; instead of thinking some students are rational, mathematical and coolly cerebral; others are artistic, intuitive, design-oriented and creative – with this combination of changes, we can give every child the chance to make connections, develop both intellectually and practically, think and make.

I am convinced that Gershenfeld is right and the changes we are seeing will not only help the traditional aims of science education but will enormously expand what pupils know and do when they leave school. It will also help squash the idea that has been particularly damaging in England that messy practical subjects are a lower form of learning. It will end the apartheid in our education system that has held so many back.

Elevating the practical to the level of the intellectual

It was because I wanted to take head-on the idea that practical learning could never be as rigorous as academic that I and my colleague John Hayes commissioned Professor Alison Wolf – Britain’s leading expert on practical education – to review how those subjects were taught, funded and assessed.

We commissioned Alison right at the start of our time in government – long before we embarked on changes to the rest of the curriculum.

Alison’s report – published 3 years ago, to the day – made the case, compellingly, for proper equivalence between the practical and technical and the academic.

That is why we changed the funding of education for students between the ages of 16 and 18 to make it equal for all, whatever qualifications and courses they took – overturning a status quo which favoured the purely academic.

We also changed the demands we make of students after the age of 16, so all students – whether they are studying more practical or more academic courses – are increasingly expected to pursue maths beyond GCSE.

And any students who fail to get maths and English GCSE by the time they’re 16 must, whatever path they’re taking, pursue both subjects until they secure those qualifications. Without those basic intellectual accomplishments, the world of work is increasingly out of reach for students.

Alison also recommended changes to practical and technical qualifications – to make them as rigorous and demanding as academic qualifications.

Under previous governments, many so-called vocational qualifications were simply watered down or diluted academic courses with less rigorous content and lax forms of assessment.

As a result they conferred almost no benefit on students. They were badges that marked their bearers as undereducated. The reason these qualifications did not enjoy parity of esteem with academic qualifications was nothing to do with the subjects themselves and everything to do with the course design – there was no parity of difficulty, challenge, accomplishment or worth. Alison estimates that hundreds of thousands of students acquired these qualifications which actually had – in some cases – a negative impact on their employability.

Now every qualification which counts in our schools and colleges – academic or technical – must have a rigorous marking structure, external assessment, robust content and real stretch, or must be redeveloped to meet that standard. As a result there is – at last – the prospect of a genuine equality of worth and parity of esteem between all qualifications.

The CBI asked a few years ago when vocational qualifications would be as rigorous and respected as A levels. Thanks to Matthew Hancock’s development of Alison’s work, and the introduction of tech levels and a technical baccalaureate from September, that day is now coming.

We’re ending the apartheid between the academic and vocational – and giving every single young person in the country the best possible start to their future, whatever that future may be.

Alison’s and Matt’s work has helped us move our educational system towards the goal I’ve been aiming for – making opportunity more equal for all children. And all our curriculum and structural changes are designed to help every student succeed with the right mix and melding of courses and study for them.

But even as we bring students, courses and qualifications closer together as part of our long-term plan to secure our children’s future there is another element we need dramatically to improve on.

If our education system is to equip our children for the changing world of work, business must embrace change and work harder to get closer to education.

Bringing together the worlds of learning and working

Business – quite rightly – points out that it needs workers who possess not just impressive academic qualifications but attractive personal qualities. Employees need to be self disciplined, capable of subordinating their own instincts and interests to the needs of the team, responsive and respectful towards others, resourceful under pressure, tenacious and self motivating. Increasingly, they also need to be creative in the face of adversity, quick thinking when presented with unexpected challenges.

The first step to ensuring students have those character virtues is enforcing effective discipline and behaviour policies in all our schools.

We have given teachers new powers to ensure good behaviour – and we have enhanced the training new teachers receive to ensure they can manage behaviour better.

And we are also supporting schools in the cultivation of those virtues – character strengths – which employers value through co-curricular activities such as team sports, cadet forces, debating, dance, music and drama.

That’s why we’re investing over £150 million a year in sport in primary schools, to instil a sporting habit for life. It’s why we’re expanding the number of cadet forces in state schools and why we have national plans for music and culture education to support the work of individual schools.

But if these investments are to pay their full dividend – for young people, and for society more broadly – then business needs to play a bigger part in a joint venture.

We need business people with experience of company boardrooms on the governing boards of our schools. Headteachers and the professionals they lead thrive best in an atmosphere of thoughtful support and rigorous challenge. The skills required to provide that support and challenge exist in abundance in the business world. But too few business people volunteer to serve on school governing bodies.

We have made it easier to do so. Setting out changes to governance which mean meetings can be more focused, training for governors more tailored, unnecessary bureaucratic box-ticking has gone. The whole process has become more businesslike. Now business must meet the challenge.

We also need business to provide more opportunities for students to learn about the world of work directly from those who can speak with enthusiasm and passion about their companies and careers.

For young people reflecting on which career path to follow no information is as valuable, no inspiration so powerful as the testimony of those at the front line of business. That is why the new careers guidance produced by my colleague Matt Hancock is all about cutting out the middle man and getting inspirational speakers in front of students to spark their ambitions. Students can’t aspire to lives they’ve never known. So we need business people to visit schools, engage and inspire.

Initiatives like Robert Peston’s Speakers for Schools and Miriam González Durántez’s Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women are superb models. But every business should be engaging with its local schools and colleges – offering speakers and competing to inspire the next generation.

And that inspiration should feed through directly to the offer of work experience.

I know that some companies have been reluctant to offer, or maintain, work experience because of the bureaucracy, risks and costs associated with it.

Offer a young person your time, interest and access to your workplace and you can then find yourself worrying about arcane, confusing and unnecessary regulatory burdens.

We’ve already started to sort out this nonsense. Last year the Health and Safety Executive stripped away unnecessary health and safety rules, the Home Office removed the need for criminal checks on employers offering under-18s work experience, the insurance industry – at the government’s request – confirmed that young people on work experience will be covered by employers’ liability insurance, and the Department for Education introduced new funding rules that encourage schools and colleges to arrange post-16 work experience. We’ve changed the law so that for most businesses, so long as you behave reasonably, you have discharged all your duties under health and safety legislation.

Soon, there will be no excuse for any company to decline to offer young people proper work experience.

Indeed, there is no excuse for not going further.

Thanks to the changes we’re making to the apprenticeship programme, there is no reason why every company in the country should not be offering apprenticeships.

Until now some of our most impressive companies have stood aloof from the apprenticeship programme. They’ve felt that it was too bureaucratic and costly to offer apprenticeships. And they argued that the apprenticeship frameworks – setting out the skills and competencies we expected apprentices to acquire in each industry – were too inflexible, and didn’t deliver the high-quality skills they needed.

So we set ourselves the challenge of simplifying the apprenticeship programme and making it more responsive to employers’ needs, so no employer could have any reason for standing aloof.

And we asked the hugely successful entrepreneur Doug Richard to help us strip the programme down to essentials.

He’s done a brilliant job.

Following his recommendations we’re introducing reforms to put employers in the driving seat – giving them control of more than £1.4 billion invested in apprenticeships by the government so that employers can demand higher quality from whatever training provider they choose, rather than giving it to providers who force employers to take whatever training they happen to want to offer. We’re getting rid of those study requirements which were inserted by self-serving lobby groups, bureaucrats and trade unions and which have nothing to do with preparing young people for the modern workplace.

Critically, we’re getting businesses to design the quality standards which mark out an apprentice in any field as properly qualified. They are leaders in their field and will ensure that the apprenticeship programme at last serves modern business needs rather than politicians’ vanity.

And building on Alison’s work we will also require apprentices to achieve GCSE passes in maths and English alongside their workplace learning. The apprenticeship standards themselves will only be met if students demonstrate both a theoretical and practical grasp of their area. This synoptic form of assessment will ensure that apprentices have both deep knowledge and an assured level of skill in their chosen career.

These reforms address every single one of the concerns raised by business about weaknesses in the apprenticeship programme we inherited. There is now therefore no excuse for business not to engage – and many who held back before, are now, thankfully, starting to get much more closely involved.

That is why I hope we will see every business as enthusiastic about playing its part in providing high-quality education and training as the employers in our trailblazers.

I’d like to see every business include details of its apprenticeship scheme – indeed details of its work experience programme, its speakers for schools programme and its level of commitment to providing school governors – in its annual report, on its website front page and every time its CEO speaks.

It’s also why, whenever business leaders report their results, I hope they’ll take the trouble to report apprenticeship growth – and be quizzed about their commitment to education and training by business journalists and shareholders.

A long-term plan for all our children

The proposals I’ve talked about today:

– changes to take advantage of technological breakthroughs

– changes inspired by what’s happening in the nations with the highest-performing educational institutions

– changes to make the curriculum more modern

– changes to make qualifications more rigorous

– changes to make funding fairer

– changes to ensure bureaucracy and regulation are reduced

– and changes to bring the world of work and education – making and learning – closer together

– are all elements in the comprehensive long-term plan we have to make our education system world class and our economy world-beating.

That plan has been designed to take account of the rapid change being forced on us by economic, social and, above all, technological changes, affecting every nation on earth.

That plan gives schools greater autonomy and flexibility to adapt to change and respond to innovation – through the academy and free schools programme.

It also gives schools more power, money and freedom to recruit the very best teachers in all the disciplines the modern workplace requires – with performance-related pay, improved teacher training and bursaries for the best graduates entering the profession.

But it holds schools to account more rigorously than ever for making sure every child succeeds – with tougher exams and performance tables that recognise the achievements of every child.

But if all our children are to benefit from these changes we need continuity in the direction of education policy, determination to meet the future unflinchingly, consistency in our pursuit of excellence.

That is what David Cameron and George Osborne’s leadership provides, and that is why it is vital the reform programme they have begun – the long-term plan they are implementing – is carried through to completion.