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Academic success is not the only kind that counts

Iain Mackinnon, chair of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, argues it is time to give vocational students their place in the sun

IN A CROWDED Worcester theatre in 1882, William Booth listened to the huge acclaim for a spirited rendition of "Champagne Charlie is my name" and set the Salvation Army off on the road we know so well by asking his neighbour, "why should the devil have all the best tunes?"

Inspired by Booth's thought process (though not his language, I mean no offence to our cousins in the schools system), I want to ask: "why do we in further education allow the media, every August, to report exam success as though it's only academic exams that matter?"

I think we should have our own day in August to celebrate the success of our vocational students: VQ day. Every year, in the quiet days of mid-August, the press gorges itself on first the GCSE results, then A-levels. They devote pages to league tables, analysis and worries about whether another crop of record results is evidence of real progress or simply that education is going to the dogs. There is no hint that just as many students sit vocational exams. They are entirely neglected in the coverage. Let's change that.

The recent Leitch report was the latest to advocate ending the unhelpful academic-vocational divide, with more suggestions for action towards parity of esteem. None of them, however, involve simple advocacy for vocational qualifications. Parity of esteem is unlikely, I suggest, until we have much greater awareness of vocational qualifications and much greater recognition of their value. Someone has to stick up for them and no one is better placed to do so than colleges.

It is clearly a problem that, to a much greater extent than with GCSEs and A levels, students sit vocational qualifications through the year. They also sit them through different awarding bodies which do not align the times for publishing their results. Thus there is not one single date when we can focus attention on vocational education.

Nor am I suggesting that we should have what's awkward from a presentational point of view is a great strength of our system and we shouldn't try to change it. What we could do, however, is to find a single day each August when we announce the cumulative success of vocational students through the year, ideally reporting growth in an index of numbers and successes.

That would take a bit of organisation, but it's a task the Association of Colleges and its counterparts across the UK would be well placed to take on. I hope awarding bodies would increasingly choose the day to publish some of their results so the media could photograph our students, too, in their excitement at finding out how they have done. Colleges could publicise their success stories and offer interviews with their students and use the publicity to help with recruitment. I would deliberately choose a date between the days given over to GCSEs and A-levels to capitalise on the media's interest in education when it's topical.

Is this artificial? A bit. But there is nothing artificial about the success of our vocational students and I want to give them their place in the sun. And then I want to use that growing recognition of the value of vocational education to move on to the more sophisticated argument about parity of esteem. But first, we need to get some real esteem for vocational qualifications.

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