As a publisher seeking a book about the experiences of students who fall into the lower 50% of academic performance, you wouldn’t typically choose a 64-year-old former headmaster of Harrow as your author. Nor would you select a title like "Other People’s Children," which implies that readers’ children must be high achievers. Nevertheless, Barnaby Lenon, who spent his career teaching in prestigious private schools, managed to find a publisher for such a book, which was published this summer.
Lenon admits that writing about the experiences of students who do not pursue A-levels or university was presumptuous of him, as he spent his entire career working with students who do so. However, he decided to undertake the task when he found it difficult to locate a simple guide to vocational education. Lenon researched his findings by examining training and qualifications for occupations such as plumbers, chefs, mechanics, hairdressers, and care workers, primarily for those in the lower 50% of their class.
Lenon’s book, "Other People’s Children," occasionally feels like the report of a 19th-century explorer providing observations on savage lands, as he discusses vocational education and qualifications in these occupations. Although the book reads like a textbook and isn’t something you would bring to the beach, it contains a comprehensive analysis of the ills of English education for 14- to 19-year-olds.
The unusual aspect of Lenon’s writing is that, despite his career in private education, he appears to have separated the insights he gained from researching his book from his opinions as a private school head. In "Other People’s Children," Lenon contends that the most significant issue facing English education is inadequate support for students in the lower half of the academic proficiency range and cautions that addressing their needs should be a top priority for any education secretary.
Lenon’s book explains that the current focus on strengthening the academic aspects of 11-18 education has severely impacted students’ weaker half, who now spend too much time on academic components. Michael Gove’s abolition of modular GCSEs further hampered them by preventing termly exams that would allow less academic students to focus better.
However, Lenon does not believe that Gove’s educational reforms were entirely misguided. Gove recognized that England was falling behind some far eastern countries in education and that a degree of dumbing down had taken place. Similarly, Lenon does not advocate for doing away with the current A-level systems’ narrow specialization. Instead, he believes that students should focus on subjects they enjoy to motivate them further, as he experienced in his own life. In "Other People’s Children," Lenon emphasizes that essential life-determining choices occur for English students when they are just 16-years-old, often without knowledge of the employment outcomes of their decisions. He believes that this is one of reason there is a low enrollment rate in Stem courses.
Lenon exudes confidence akin to that of a successful headteacher, even when his statements may seem contradictory, resulting in difficulty discerning his true standpoint. Despite this, Lenon is on a journey and I inquire if I may report this. He confirms that he is indeed on a journey, but I wonder if he comprehends the arduous task teachers undergo daily, as many students do not favor any one school subject, causing disheartenment among state school teachers regularly.
However, this does not undermine the critical messages relayed in Lenon’s book. Firstly, funding for FE colleges is insufficient, substantially less than schools and universities, creating larger equipment costs and mandatory smaller class sizes. Secondly, though the UK has an influx of graduates, there is a scarcity of individuals with intermediate skills requiring qualifications higher than A-levels but below degree level. A mere 36% of the population possess such skills, in comparison with an OECD average of 44%, with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic exceeding 60%.
Thirdly, England’s vocational education system is a long-established, disreputable mess, with a bewildering myriad of 163 organizations, offering 20,000 different vocational qualifications, of which 30 are solely for plumbing. With the development of NVQs, diplomas, Applied Generals, and many others, Lenon shrewdly observes that “the average government minister is only in post for two years and the easiest way in which he or she can make a mark is by changing a qualifications system,” creating further complexities.
Lenon accepts to some extent that complexity is inevitable in vocational training, as engineering contrasts with hairdressing. However, recent governments have exacerbated the situation by introducing market forces, and multiple private entities compete in offering qualifications, leading them to offer shorter syllabuses, numerous resit opportunities, easier question papers, and more lenient grading.
Lenon supports the present government’s initiative to provide vocational education under its own brand: T-levels. FE colleges potentially offer thousands of course options as every profession has its unique requirements, and the government proposes 15 diverse T-level “routes” such as creative and design, hair and beauty, engineering and manufacturing, social care, and transport and logistics, which is a good number as it can easily be retained in memory.
Despite praising T-levels, Lenon’s characteristic perversity leads him to outline 16 reasons why the initiative will most likely fail. A handful of students will undertake them, and finding enough proficient teachers is implausible. Also, standards have been established too lowly, there will be no “parity of esteem” with A-levels, and the introduction has been rushed. Lenon stipulates that the only solution is for politicians to adopt a long-term view, asserting that “T-levels won’t work within one parliament” — a statement that may be improbable. However, it is rational considering Lenon’s association with a school established in 1572.
The book, Other People’s Children, authored by Barnaby Lenon, is published by John Catt.