"Parity of esteem”: there is no more perfidious phrase in the English language. Those three words provide cover for politicians but they are fraudulent and empty. The term is just a fig leaf for a big fat lie perpetuated on the poor.
It’s had some interesting outings in education. Take Sir Michael Tomlinson’s 2004 review of the 14-19 curriculum with its “unified framework of qualifications” that was meant to replace GCSEs and A levels with an overarching diploma.
That was rejected by education secretary Ruth Kelly, doing Tony Blair’s bidding, after only weeks deliberating on one of the biggest education decisions for several decades. At the time, she was accused of wasting the chance to secure “parity of esteem” between vocational and academic courses.
But there was one MP who backed the triumphant survival of the academic qualifications. Nick Gibb, backbench Tory MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, applauded Ms Kelly for not “slavishly following the views of the education establishment”. There’s a man who’s always consistent.
Undeterred, however, Kelly put forward her own watered-down proposal to “provide parity of esteem” – a mix of “functional skills”, vocational training and more traditional academic study in the form of diplomas.
The test then – as now with T levels, the latest parity-of-esteem wheeze – was whether elite universities would offer places to students with this heady equalizing brew.
They didn’t go for it then and now, two years before the qualifications are introduced, two big Russell Group institutions have already dismissed T levels out of hand as being not sufficiently academic. Rejected, in fact, for being the very thing they are supposed to be. “T levels are, by their very nature, to be much more vocational in their essence. So why should fundamentally academic institutions consider them?” asks acting FE editor Julia Belgutay, pertinently.
So why do we continue with this “parity of esteem” charade? In this class-ridden country, we seem totally incapable of promoting vocational qualifications and jobs for what they are. We only seem to be able to do so by pretending that they are like academic ones – no doubt because we are afraid of being branded the snobs that we undoubtedly are.
There is a fundamental embarrassment about vocational education that ministers just can’t get over. They know they have to sell it because the country desperately needs technical skills, and will need them even more post-Brexit.
The problem is that the vast majority of politicians have never experienced vocational education themselves, they don’t really understand it and, crucially, they certainly don’t want their children to do it.
T levels will put technical education “on a par” with other routes to employment, skills minister Anne Milton trumpeted last autumn, very much hoping that just by saying the right words, she will make people believe. But with no detail of the curriculum content or the grading structures, getting universities on board was always going to be a tough sell.
And if the universities won’t buy the government’s rhetoric, you can bet that middle-class parents certainly won’t. And so, once again, it will undoubtedly be less-privileged young people – who already get scant careers advice early enough to be able to make decisions about their futures – who will be cheated of choice.
Let’s not lie to them with airy-fairy tales of parity of esteem. They’ve already been dealt a poor hand in life; let’s not impoverish it further. Instead, we need to be honest and tell them that T levels are different from A levels, that they will lead to a respectable alternative to the academic route. They may not get the kudos, but there’s every chance they will get the cash.