If Boris Johnson wants to fix the further education system, he should watch MasterChef: The Professionals

For generations, educationists have described despairingly the failure to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic qualifications

Ed Dorrell
Tuesday 30 November 2021 14:52
Masterchef critic Charles Campion judges fish dish

You know the drill. Monica and Marcus – the terrifying, but cool as hell, double-headed hydra of kitchen perfectionism – welcome a new victim into the studio and set them an apparently simple cooking task to complete in an insanely small amount of time.

Not content with interrogating the technique of each new participant on MasterChef: The Professionals from a proximity that would likely challenge most social distancing rules, the pair then probe their victims’ life stories.

If a competitor seems to know what they’re doing, one of the judges will ask them where they trained. If the answer comes back something like, “I went to college to learn the classics,” Messrs Galetti and Wareing will turn to each other and nod approvingly. The look they give each other is akin to how merchant bankers might respond when an intern mentions in passing that they went to Brasenose, Oxford.

Only it’s not a dreaming spire these culinary gods are approving of; it’s any one of the hundreds of perfectly ordinary further education colleges churning out vocational qualifications every year, often in the toughest of circumstances. Catering and cooking is pretty much the only sector in which colleges achieve this level of perceived elitism in the popular consciousness. It’s a genuine outlier.

For generations, educationists have described despairingly the failure to achieve “parity of esteem” between vocational and academic qualifications. It is this, as much as anything, experts say, that has led to the failure of successive governments to invest properly in colleges, and has driven the skills shortages we’ve seen for so long in the trades. Put simply, a 2:1 in English Lit has more cultural value in most British settings than a distinction in an engineering HND.

The Johnson government is having another go at doing something about it. Driven by the gaping post-Brexit skills gap – and the need to retrain whole swathes of the workforce in the new skills required to achieve net zero – ministers are determined to somehow rebalance the system away from universities in favour of further education colleges and vocational education.

Among many other initiatives, for example, they are attempting to deliver “T-levels”, a qualification that they hope will be seen as the equal of A-levels. These are already delayed, however, and critics say that they are too academic in the way they are being designed.

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Which brings me to another observation about those wonderful MasterChef participants. As well as having been so well drilled in the painstakingly complex techniques needed to “go deep” into the MasterChef competition, many are examples of another thing that colleges are exceptionally good at: picking up the pieces. As often as not, contestants struggled at school, posted disappointing or non-existent GCSE results, and had previously concluded that education wasn’t for them. They saw themselves as failures right up until the point that the local catering lecturer – whom one rather imagines as a drill sergeant – got their teeth into them.

The catering courses that turn them around – teaching them to master everything from fishmongery to fruit souffles – are elitist while simultaneously being proudly vocational rather than academic. And that’s the rarest of rare things in British education.

But it’s a recipe that ministers are going to need to fully get to the bottom of if they’re to finally fix the relationship between technical and mainstream education. It’s a huge challenge, but the key almost certainly lies somewhere among the perfect haute cuisine of the MasterChef kitchens.

Ed Dorrell is director at Public First

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