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Are vocational courses soft options?

Amid this year's August pantomime of exam results, there was a new headline: "Car repair diploma beats A-level". A new system of "equivalence" means vocational achievements are being ranked alongside A-level grades. As BBC Online noted: "A car repair diploma will be worth far more points than a grade A in a physics A-level: 420 compared with 270. Colleges say this will more fairly reflect their work. Independent schools say it devalues A-levels."

This highlights the snobbery towards vocational qualifications that is as deep-rooted as it is distasteful. In making a case for vocational subjects, let me first dismiss some of the easy targets. Of course some schools have besmirched the value of vocational courses by playing the GNVQ league table game. But no one should be too surprised if, in an age when schools are judged by league table, some resort to a desperate scramble to boost their position.

Secondly, let's concede the historical problems with many vocational qualifications. Ofsted's adviser, Peter Toft, told a conference on engineering in schools: "If vocational courses are to be worth two GCSEs, then pupils should be spending twice the length of time on them." Fair point. But the real problem is that many of the qualifications branded "vocational" are nothing of the sort. Technology courses could sometimes feel more like home-grown versions of Blue Peter.

Our distaste for vocational qualifications has made us shy away from producing genuine work-related qualifications. We need to slough off our very British contempt for all things vocational, recognising that law, medicine, veterinary science and dentistry are just a few of the courses that serve us pretty well, and maybe helping students to acquire decent skills as mechanics, plumbers and hairdressers is important too.

That means accepting that key stage 3 concludes a general phase of education, with students expected to have mastered basic skills in literacy, numeracy and science. KS4 is then all about specialisation. Some students should be encouraged to specialise in relevant courses that may take up more of their time than GCSEs. The compartmentalisation of learning into separate subjects is disorientating for many students. They need to work on vocational content in greater depth.

Our school has recognised a group of about 30 students at key stage 4 for whom the traditional GCSE diet is woefully inappropriate. Rather than put them on some "alternative" course, we aim to make our new vocational course the hottest ticket on the curriculum. Students will follow a reduced core of GCSEs. They will have a day at college each week on specialist courses of their choice, and for the rest of the time they will develop the skills to be our in-house catering company, XL Catering, learning to prepare and present food for a range of school events and audiences. In the process they will learn about accounting, marketing, catering, food hygiene and other skills.

Many of these students never sit down to a meal with an adult, so our wackiest wheeze (for which we have external funding) is to take them to local restaurants and show them what it is like to have a civilised meal in calm surroundings. Yes, we'll hand out every qualification we can get - from food hygiene certificates to first aid awards to cake-decorating, plus an in-house accreditation scheme backed by local employers.

What the critics of specialist courses forget is that the self-esteem of such students is often abysmal. Every public sign of recognition is more likely to help them become successful citizens in a global economy that needs skilled, problem-solving youngsters who can manage themselves and work in a team.

Which is why the sniping at the idea of vocational qualifications is so shameful.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Suffolk Vocational route expands FE Focus 1

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