She said she was trying to 'turbo-charge' the economy by encouraging able girls to consider the better employment prospects which, she claimed, would follow an education in science, maths, technology or engineering, rather than an education in the humanities or the arts.
But if you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told – for all kinds of jobs.
Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”
But it is the premise of her argument that also needs challenging, as well as its wavering line. Is future employability the only consideration for choosing what you study at 16? Is she perhaps confusing 'education' with 'training'? And how certain can anyone be that what currently governs employers' choices will hold true by the time you come to seek a job?
Leaving aside questions about the ethics, health and direction of the world economy, and overlooking her momentary forgetfulness that her own party still promotes educational breadth (albeit of a 19th century kind), her casual denigration of young minds is alarming. How insulting is it to suggest that young people choose to study arts and humanities subjects (as if these were their only options) because they don't really know what to do, and 'have their eyes shut' (her words) to the reality of employers' requirements? And is it true to claim that choosing such subjects would 'hold you back' (her words) from employment? It doesn't seem to have held her back.
The slack thinking behind her sweeping statements should remind us how important it is to teach critical thought - the kind already taught in philosophy, history or English, as well as, one would hope, in science, maths or engineering. What would a media-savvy English student - or any teacher - make of this wild claim:
" ... maths, as we all know, is the subject that employers value most, helping young people develop skills which are vital to almost any career."
Who are 'we' who know such a thing? Is this true for your experience? It isn't for hers and it wasn't for mine.
It's a cheap shot when she's talking maths, but this kind of argument just doesn't add up.
Teaching children to think - including thinking through the consequences of their choices - is a proper concern for education. And that involves helping them to understand the complexity of the human condition in a changing world, refracted as this should be through an appropriately wide and contemporary curriculum. So I'd want to challenge the glib, the one-sided, the half-truths, and - yes - the statistics (too often portrayed as the only data).
The struggle with language and thinking and reading and writing should always be at the heart of education. In a highly commercial and competitive climate, if the education minister herself does not stand up for a nobler vision for education, who will?
NWP outreach director