Party Conferences 2023

Advanced BS? Perhaps, but hot dog, there’s good news for skills too

The prime minister’s announcement shows commitment to fixing the mistakes of the past – whoever was responsible for them, explains Jonathan Simons

The prime minister’s announcement shows commitment to fixing the mistakes of the past – whoever was responsible for them, explains Jonathan Simons

4 Oct 2023, 18:25

If you’re an online person, you’ll be familiar with the “hot dog” meme, known formally as “we’re all trying to find the guy who did this”. If you’re not aware, it’s taken from a previously obscure comedy sketch in which a man in a hot dog costume drives a novelty hot dog car into a shop window, causing massive damage. 

The hot dog driver then walks around in his costume with all the other customers, tutting about who on earth would have done such a stupid thing, and promising retribution when he finds them.

Anyway, changing topic completely, Rishi Sunak gave a speech today in which he told the Conservative Party conference everything that was wrong with education and what needed fixing. 

Actually, that’s not quite true. He stood there with big brown eyes and told the audience about the power of the Tories’ education reforms. He loves them. Really, really loves them. Especially the ones Michael Gove and Nick Gibb did, about knowledge-rich curricula and academic merit.

But skills? Those brown eyes looked up sorrowfully. 

Skills was a mistake. A 30-year mistake. 

Abolishing diplomas? A mistake, presumably. Cutting FE funding? Definitely a mistake. Introducing a new, gold-standard A level equivalent qualification called T Levels? The biggest mistake of all. 

Because it turns out he doesn’t like A levels after all. Or T Levels. That’s why he’s fixing the mistakes that unnamed other ministers made and scrapping them all, including the knowledge-rich curricula and reformed exams he was so proud of five minutes ago. 

A whole new qualification, the prime minister announced.

“Advanced BS,” someone sitting next to me muttered.

“Hold on,” I whispered back. “Let’s hear the end of the argument.”

“No,” he said. “That’s the name: Advanced British Standard.” 

“Oh come on,” I said. “Really? There’s no way they’ve picked something with that stupid an acronym. That would be like abolishing T Levels in the middle of the government’s own ‘T Levels Week’!”

I’m not saying there’s nothing good here for FE. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time a Conservative prime minister even talked about FE in a conference speech. Rob Halfon certainly welcomed it. In the hall, Gillian Keegan cried. (This was just after the PM had described her as a former degree apprentice, so it’s possible she was crying because she didn’t want anyone to know. She doesn’t make a big deal of it. One to check). 

Even Nick Gibb welcomed it, though I suspect he’ll need some remedial dental work once he’s unwound his rictus grin.

More money for FE lecturers is obviously a good thing. Additional funding and research into supporting maths and English re-sits, though less universally popular, is in my view a good thing. 

Explicitly recognising that improving terms and conditions for school teachers, without doing the same in FE makes the latter’s job so much harder, is long overdue. Extending learning hours for these new qualifications is also a good thing, and brings us back into line with other advanced education economies, as well as before the various changes to post-16 funding that some hot dog-loving guys cut successively since 2010. 

Normally, conference announcements come with supporting information that is as lean as the prime minister. But not this time. Shortly after he left the stage, the DfE published a 45-page document telling us all about the plan. 

‘Presented to Parliament’, it says on the front. I mean, maybe. It’s possible that we really don’t need HS2 because someone had managed to nip down to London from Manchester in the intervening period. Or maybe the document had been published in such a rush that no one realised this boilerplate sentence wasn’t true. Both possibilities are good!

I opened the document randomly. “For a long time, governments have claimed technical education is equal to academic, but in practice it is not”, it says.

Next sentence, “Since 2010 we have worked with employers to reinvigorate the quality of technical education and training in this country: we have introduced 18 T Levels…..”

Boy, when the prime minister catches the people who insisted we had parity of esteem and introduced these T Level qualifications that are for the scrap-heap, there’ll be a reckoning.

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