'Parity of esteem? Education and skills don't compare'

Academic and vocational education are apples and pears - let's value them for what they are, says Graham Hasting-Evans

Graham Hasting-Evans

'Parity of esteem? Education and skills don't compare'

We’ve all been taxing our brains for decades now about how to establish parity of esteem for technical and vocational qualifications and skills against academic qualifications. We all tend to refer to technical and vocational qualifications as "education", but is this correct? Have we been trying to compare two things that are just simply incomparable?

We undertook research with City and Guilds – Close the Gap –  and the research we’re currently undertaking as part of WorldSkills UK’s activities in Kazan have caused us to rethink the conventional wisdom.

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Education and skills are like apples and pears: they’re both fruit, but they’re not the same. Aspirations of parity of esteem are misplaced: we need to value both for what they are.

Parity of esteem? The academic route

Our long-established and respected academic route is there primarily to provide young people with a broad, enriching education for all aspects of life as a member of our society. As part of this, it gives young people the foundation knowledge to help them enter the world of work. Quite rightly, it also provides the opportunity for adults to return later in life to academic studies.

As well as having a separate objective to skills, the academic route operates fundamentally differently. It acts as a filter: people decide they do not want to, or cannot, continue along the  academic route and move into the world of work and skills development.

In other countries, young people transition from the academic route to the skills development route at the age of 14 or 15.  But in the UK it can happen at various points: after GCSEs have been taken at 16, aged 18 or 19 after completing A levels or once learners graduate from university. 

If students do choose an academic route, their learning is centred around large, single examination-based qualifications that are driven by the cycle of the academic year.

The skills route

This is a sharp contrast to the way the skills development route works. There are two linked but different objectives:

  • For people starting their careers, the objective is to shape and develop them into productive and skilled workers for the economy. This could be through apprenticeships or jobs with a training and skill development component.

  • For people during their career, the objective is to support them in up-skilling to reflect the changes in the economy, their sector and technology. Predominantly this is achieved through learning and development on-the job, short courses, smaller modularised qualifications and CPD. Some people may, as a result of wanting to make a significant career change, wish to re-enter the academic route.

Skills development embraces formal technical knowledge and learning, employability skills, work readiness and competencies. A person becomes a productive and skilled employee by a mixture of formal learning, accompanied by testing, together with practically doing the tasks in the job to develop a full competency for the role. It is this more complex development path that makes apprenticeships a very good option for those entering their careers.

This cycle of learning, doing; learning, doing; and learning, doing is at the heart of skills development. The ability to do the job consistently, day-in-day-out, to the standard required is the real level of achievement we are looking for. This is very different to the passing of an academic examination, after a set period of time in school, college or university, as a gateway to the next academic level.

We need to recognise that education can enrich lives in the wider sense, but it is skills that drives a productive and prosperous economy, that we can all benefit from. Both education and skills development need to adequately valued and invested in.

Graham Hasting-Evans is the group managing director at NOCN

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