Michael Gove’s O-level plan: A threat to business

Having an education system that plays a part in delivering future economic prosperity is an aspiration for any country. Considering that, I’m forced to ask: has education secretary, Michael Gove considered the requirements of a large number of employers when he came up with the idea of reintroducing O levels?

As a member of the O level generation, I know that in the past practical, vocational education was often seen as a second class route to qualifications and skills.

A two-tier education system created that stigma, where O levels were reserved for an academic cream destined for University and white collar jobs, while supposedly less capable students attended the poor-relation qualification, the CSE.

If the O level returns, what will happen to students unable to meet the standards required to take that exam? Mr. Gove might envision three quarters of school pupils taking O levels, but it will take some time to turn a tanker of an education system around to make that happen.

GCSEs, whether you think they have been a success or not, are geared to learning in modules with coursework as well as exams, similar to many modern post-16 vocational courses. 

I predict we will be watching many young people nurtured to learn and be assessed in bite-size chunks struggling with a substantial change mid-way through their educational life, suddenly faced with a solely academic system.

But what does this mean to business? Firstly, we’ll be affected by a lost generation of school leavers entering the jobs market with poor qualifications. We don’t have a history of straight forward transitions of pretty much anything in this country. 

Secondly, and this is my main concern, the strides we have made to make vocational learning credible and relevant to 21st century business will face a serious setback. 

If the route to post-16 vocational learning is through a second class CSE-style qualification employers will take a less impressed view of a candidate’s credentials. 

Encourage the return of a two-tier education system where those of an academic bent are considered superior in the eyes of employers and society is a bad idea. It will come at the cost of those who I and many others consider may well hold the key to a prosperous future for the UK.

We need to ensure the work of experts like Prof. Alison Wolf with support from people in business like me have done to increase the validity of vocational learning does not go to waste. 

If Michael Gove gets his way vocational training will never be on an even standing with academic education. 

Instead of having young people being proud to choose a practical route to earn industry-respected vocational qualifications, they’ll see it as a last resort. And that will lead to more major problems for our economy.

Charlie Mullins is the CEO and founder of Pimlico Plumbers.

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