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'Blaming vocational qualifications for the dumbing down of education needs to stop'

David Grailey, chief executive of awarding body NCFE, writes:

This year, UCAS publicised a record rise in students accepting university places. Overall, admissions were up by 4 per cent this year, compared with the same period 12 months earlier. However, rather than this being celebrated, there have been claims that universities have “dumbed down” their entry requirements by accepting record numbers of students with vocational qualifications.

This led to accusations that universities had effectively lowered their entry requirements in order to fill places and compete with the growing popularity of apprenticeships. However, I would argue: is this not UCAS simply being forward thinking? And why is it so wrong to raise the cap on aspiration and be more inclusive when it comes to university entry? After all, recent research (carried out by the IPPR), highlighted that many of the jobs expected to drive economic growth in the future will be accessible with a vocational qualification.

By 2022, there is set to be an additional 3.6 million job vacancies in skilled occupations (such as accounting technicians, child care supervisors, legal executives, radiographers), all of which employ high numbers of people with vocational qualifications. With these figures in mind, isn’t it likely that increasing amounts of young people will choose to complete a high quality vocational qualification to achieve their career outcomes? And therefore, is it not right that universities recognise this trend?

There are now a large number of substantial vocational qualifications which are designed to stretch the learner and can hold their own against A-levels – equal, just different. In education, there is no such thing as one size fits all. With this in mind, someone could be just as talented at a practical skill such as sport, photography or business as someone else is at studying English literature. Therefore, it’s right that each of these people have the opportunity to develop and nurture their skills at a higher level, provided they have a high quality qualification which evidences a specific level of ability.

Blaming vocational qualifications for the ‘dumbing down of education’ needs to stop. It’s an out-dated attitude, bordering on intellectual snobbery which is certainly not helpful to the confidence of young people who are working so hard to complete a vocational qualification.

A report from the Edge Foundation revealed that nearly a quarter of young people have been told by parents and careers advisors that they are "too clever for vocational education" and are therefore guided towards A-levels as a "safe", traditional option. This is whether or not they are suited to A-levels or not!

As we continue to try to decrease the numbers of those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) with the raising of the participation age, I think it’s integral that we praise the young people who have chosen to pursue their education, in whichever area is best suited to their skills, talents and interests. Let’s not stifle their progress.

That being said, university is not the only way to stimulate development of skills. For many people completing a vocational qualification, an apprenticeship may be a more natural progression route than university, offering great rewards in terms of earning whilst you’re learning. What’s more, at the recent party conferences, apprenticeships was the word of the season, bringing together all three of the major political parties with a refreshing degree of consensus. There’s no doubt about it, whichever way the election swings, apprenticeships will play a crucial role in the next government’s drive to reduce youth unemployment and improve social mobility.

The important thing is that young people are given the best advice on which route to take, coupled with the opportunity to pursue this route actively. This means universities accepting high quality vocational qualifications as well as A-levels. It means dropping the snobbery about the value of vocational learning and recognising its place. It means giving the right advice to young people, painting them a clear picture of all they can do and all they can achieve. It’s by doing all of this that the next generation can make an informed choice about their next steps in life, and go on to be successful.

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