“Under the last government there were courses that were regarded as equivalent to GCSEs. For example – I am not making this up – a course in Personal Effectiveness which actually involved learning how to fill out a benefit form.”
David Cameron, 20 April 2012
FactCheck’s ears always prick up when we hear the phrase “I am not making this up” from a politician.
When Home Secretary Theresa May uttered those words last year it led to “catgate”.
In fact, despite Mrs May’s protestations, it seemed that someone had indeed made up the story about the illegal immigrants who could not be deported because they had a pet cat.
We wondered if Mr Cameron was heading for a similar banana skin as he extolled the virtues of vocational education while on a local election campaign visit to Cumbria today.
Mr Cameron’s anecdote about the benefit form came as part of an attack on the last Labour government’s record on offering quality alternatives to academic study.
By way of a contrast the Prime Minister cited Rolls Royce – the UK’s second biggest exporter of military hardware, and a guest of Mr Cameron on his defence-heavy trade delegation to Asia last week – as a shining example of how to provide vocational training that works.
And he suggested apprenticeships can inspire social mobility. With a nod to the Rolls-Royce’s boardroom, Mr Cameron said: “We want a society where people have real chance to get on and get up – to escape the circumstances of their birth.”
Mr Cameron’s words about the Rolls-Royce board is worth quoting in full.
The Prime Minister said: “We shouldn’t underestimate the importance to social mobility of a really strong system of vocational education and apprenticeships. These too can take people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the boardrooms of the finest and most respected companies in the land.”
“Take Rolls-Royce. Half the members of its board started as apprentices.”
Rolls-Royce publishes a full list of its board of directors online.
We asked the company to tell us a bit more about the background of the board, but they weren’t keen to help us explore the topic.
Luckily, these are high-profile business leaders and many of their biographies are widely available.
By our reckoning, three out of five of the executive board started their career at Rolls-Royce, but only one of them did something that could be described as an apprenticeship.
Colin Smith joined the company as a sponsored undergraduate in 1974, getting a degree in mechanical engineering from Southampton University while working at the firm’s Leavesden engine factory.
Mike Terrett got a first from the University of Durham before joining Rolls in 1978. And finance director Mark Morris joined the company as a graduate trainee from the University of Manchester.
Jim Guyette, the CEO of the company’s north American wing, went to Saint Mary’s College of California, while John Rishton did economics at Nottingham.
Looking at the wider 15-strong board of directors, all members but two appear to have started out with a traditional university education.
Collectively, the directors boast degrees from the universities of Saint Mary’s College of California, Manchester, Liverpool, Strathclyde, Nottingham, Imperial College, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Princeton.
One exception to the university rule is Sir Frank Chapman, an alumnus of East Ham Technical College.
Non-executive chairman Sir Simon Robertson doesn’t appear to have gone to university either, but we don’t think he squeezed in a vocational course between leaving Mr Cameron’s alma mater Eton College and beginning a distinguished career in international finance.
Sir Simon, who also happens to be a member of the Conservative Party Foundation (“set-up to receive legacies free of inheritance tax”), isn’t the only privately-educated member of the Rolls-Royce board, despite Mr Cameron’s words about “social mobility” and “disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Dame Helen Alexander, the only woman on the board, went to St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. Professor Sir Peter Gregson went to leafy Cranleigh School in Surrey, while Iain Conn and John Neill went to top Scottish private schools Loretto College and George Heriot’s respectively.
A Rolls-Royce spokesman told us about a third of the company’s senior managers start their careers as apprentices. He added: “The general trend of what the Prime Minister is saying is right. We do have a history of people joining us at 16, 18 or 21 and then moving into senior positions in the company.”
A number 10 spokesman said: “Rolls Royce’s record on hiring apprentices, and the fact that many of them progress up the company, is well documented.”
A GCSE in benefits?
This is a story the Daily Mail first picked up on in 2010.
The Mail quoted part of the curriculum of a vocational qualification for GCSE-age pupils called the Certificate in Personal Effectiveness, devised by the educational charity ASDAN.
The first time round, the paper quoted one of the tasks pupils could be set: “Find out what benefits you are entitled to if you are unemployed. Discuss with others how you would feel if you found yourself in this situation.”
The full coursework material also suggests that students might “produce an information sheet to help others in your situation” – something already done by several government departments.
The point of this, ASDAN told us, was to help develop “the skills of working with others, improving own learning, problem solving, research, discussion and presentation”.
In other words, the task had nothing to do with benefits in particular, and they wouldn’t be marked on how well they understood the welfare system. Unemployment was just a topic designed to get the pupils researching and discussing something.
That may or may not be a good use of pupils’ time, but however you look at it, this was not a lesson in how to fill out a benefit form.
Six months later, the Mail had another bite at this story, this time re-angling it as “students take exams in how to claim the dole”.
They quoted the first half of the task – “find out what benefits you are entitled to if unemployed” – but dropped the rest of the text, which makes it clear that the point of the exercise is to inspire discussion, not to learn how to sign on.
ASDAN also pointed out that, despite Mr Cameron’s suggestion that all this was allowed to happen “under the last government”, the much-maligned Certificate in Personal Effectiveness is still being taught in schools now, having been approved by the qualifications regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education.
Number 10 insisted “the Prime Minister is right” to say that pupils were learning how to fill in benefit forms, and told us that plans are afoot to stop many vocational qualifications counting as the equivalent of GCSEs in exam league tables.
A spokesman said: “From 2014, thousands of low-level vocational qualifications, including the Certificate in Personal Effectiveness, will no longer count in school league tables. Of course, schools are still allowed to offer these qualifications if they want to, but they will no longer be credited in league tables.”
We’ve picked Mr Cameron up on misleading statements and half-truths many times.
But we can’t remember the last time the PM came out with two whoppers in one speech.
Only one out of the fourteen members of the Rolls-Royce board of directors did an apprenticeship with the company, and that was a sponsored degree rather than a vocational course for a school-leaver.
And while Mr Cameron is free to dislike the Certificate in Personal Effectiveness, it’s not right to say that the course involved “learning how to fill out a benefit form”.
Looks like the curse of “I am not making this up” has struck again.
By Patrick Worrall