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'Parity of esteem between vocational and academic education? It's time we gave up'

Those who disparage vocational learning are plain wrong – so it’s time to move on, writes Sarah Simons

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Achieving widespread parity of esteem between vocational and academic education will not happen. The sector has thrown itself at this problem since vocational education was invented, and, frankly, we were doing better in our quest 500 years ago than we are now.

So instead of spending any more time and effort on this redundant battle, why don’t we start asking ourselves if parity of esteem is what we actually want? Is wider recognition of where we fit into the world of education what we’re really after? Or a greater value assigned to our function? This would make more sense than aspirations of equality with academia when we serve a different, more varied purpose. Apples and oranges…

If we accept that further education is seen by many as inferior and get upset about it, we validate the views of those who assign social and cultural value to learning. What if instead, we stop trying to prove ourselves worthy and simply tell those who disparage us that they are wrong? That we reject their ignorance.

The result of learning – the skills and knowledge acquired – is admittedly hierarchical, but that hierarchy shifts based on circumstance. If I need a better understanding of how foreign aid affects the UK economy, I’m best off asking someone with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. If I have water pouring through my ceiling, calling someone who has a level 3 NVQ in domestic plumbing and heating would be the best option. How I value other people’s education and training depends entirely on their expertise in relation to my need.

Linking education to social standing is utterly ridiculous in a market where a first-class degree is no longer a ticket to a job. Surely the recognition that an individual’s learning allows them to make a valuable contribution to society is far more important than any quibbles over where that learning took place.

There are practical implications to spreading the word on the function and value of FE: it allows us to offer a young person the progression route that fits them best, that will serve their interests, talents and ambitions. It ensures that young people, parents and teachers know that FE is an option.

While some of the ignorance surrounding FE is based on elitism, it can also be as simple as a lack of information without any value judgement attached. I’ve chatted on Twitter with a number of secondary teachers who, despite being engaged members of the education community, still have next to no idea about what actually goes on at that huge college building in their town.

Historically, there have been issues ensuring that good-quality, independent advice is in place in all schools. Although there are many schools that make an effort to actively collaborate with colleges, some (often with their own sixth-form attached) go to great lengths to prevent the local college being offered as an option. This hostility often seems to be at a strategic level rather than an operational one.

When the notion of corporate competition is removed and it’s just teachers chatting with each other, collaboration can easily flourish.

This is an edited version of an article from the 22 January edition of TES. Read the full coverage in this week's TES magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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