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A qualification, like Coke, that's the real thing

Andy Warhol once said: "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest." His words were in reference to Coca-Cola - a product close to my heart.

Further education, like Coke, is unbiased. It doesn't differentiate between those with few qualifications and those yearning to study at a higher level - or between vocational and academic. These customers have a dream unique to them as individuals. Further education makes it happen. It's the people's choice. Yet we are still stuck in a debate about "parity of esteem" between vocational and academic provision.

If we are serious about parity of esteem, we need to be positive and use branding to ensure qualifications are seen as having equal value, whether they are vocational or academic. This will be far less negative than the current tendency to constantly relate the value of one (vocational) by reference to the value of the other (academic).

The mere fact that we refer to a full level 2 NVQ as the "equivalent of five GCSEs at grade A*-C" suggests it is not. If we are serious about reinforcing the equal value, then perhaps we should have another umbrella benchmark to describe the level of achievement - vocational or academic. I think we could do worse than Certificate (level 2) and Diploma (level 3).

My proposal is not a repeat of previous debates about qualifications. It is about what we call those qualifications. Irrespective of how you get there (whether by an academic or a vocational route, or a combination of the two), when you reach the equivalent of a full level 2, you receive a National Certificate.

On reaching the equivalent of full level 3, you get a National Diploma. You might earn this by doing A-levels at school, or by completing an advanced apprenticeship with British Gas. Either way, you've made it - in your own way.

Let's start with young people. Our aim must be for all those leaving full- time education next year to receive their National Certificate. Irrespective of what they do next, it will ensure they are more ready for the world of work than those without. I suspect it won't be long before adults seeing all these young people coming into the jobs market with their National Certificates - and, the following year, their National Diplomas - will want their own.

The incremental cost of this initiative will be insignificant in the greater scheme of things and in the context of the positive culture change it will support. I am convinced that the cost could be more than covered by ensuring that those who have a National Certificate or National Diploma are not given public funding to carry on learning at the same level, but contribute to the cost of obtaining these extra qualifications. I say more about this in the independent review of fees and co-funding in FE that I undertook for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which I called Co-investing in the Skills of the Nation.

Let's go back to Andy Warhol as he continues his point about Coke. "You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too."

If I can take the liberty of a Warhol-style analysis of my idea, it would be something like this: "A National Certificate is a National Certificate and no amount of academic study can get you a better National Certificate than the one the guy doing an apprenticeship gets. And no amount of vocational training can get you a better National Certificate than the guy doing GCSEs."

Chris Banks was managing director of Coca-Cola Great Britain from 1997- 2001.

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