When I first read Professor Alison Wolf's review of vocational education, I shuddered at a comment in the foreword by education secretary Michael Gove: "She is correct to say these young people are being deceived and that this is not just unacceptable, but morally wrong." Are young people really being hoodwinked? Misinformed? Tricked?
The word "deceived" conjures up a sinister picture, where perhaps the root cause of any misinformation is, in reality, simply a lack of appropriate careers advice. At this point I imagine professional careers advisers becoming animated in the same way I did over the word "deceived".
But what is a careers adviser? Is it a trained, independent person who has vast knowledge of industries? Is it someone who has grasped every programme of study available and who knows exactly what is right for a particular learner?
You might hope so. But many people who give out careers advice are not recognised careers advisers. In addition to gleaning information from specialists, young people seek out the opinions of class teachers, parents, older siblings and friends. Thus, most of those who dispense careers advice are people with limited expertise and often no experience of another profession.
I was recently asked to speak on behalf of a local authority to Year 9s about the course options available to them in local colleges in a range of subjects. Just prior to my presentation I was told that I must not mention travel and tourism, as their school already delivered the option itself.
Although I complied with the request, I felt I was not giving effective advice, since the school's course was poorly resourced, allowed for limited progression on completion and was taught by a non-industry professional. In short, it was a poor relation to the course offered at the local college.
And then there is the qualifications and credit framework. Some might assume that a level 2 NVQ equals a level 2 diploma equals a level 2 BTEC and a level 2 OCN. But does it? And if not, what is the difference?
A simple explanation is that the NVQ is a skills-based qualification; the diploma is a vehicle for learning, a broad-based qualification with less practical work; and the BTEC and OCN provide a vocational introduction. But do teachers know which qualifications teach information about a job, and which teach the skills to do a job? Are they also aware which are worth one GCSE, and which four, five or even seven?
Schools like the one offering travel and tourism may not know how their courses compare to others and whether theirs is the most suitable. Moreover, competition to have learners on roll is fierce and can often be driven by the wrong reasons, chiefly funding. A course that doesn't recruit successfully means less funding and fewer jobs, so no wonder providers fight tooth and nail for learners, even if their course is not the most appropriate for them.
Two highly popular courses at the moment are childcare and health and social care. When these courses are full, some young people have been advised to pick a different option altogether, even though places may exist on their chosen subject at a competitor institution. Are these examples of the deception that was talked about earlier?
What is suitable for one person may not be suitable for another. Do learners need a skill, an introduction to an industry or a vehicle for learning? It is time to adjust the imbalance and provide careers advice that is impartial, fair and reasonable.
Russell Joseph is lead diploma assessor for the central London boroughs and a chief examiner with a large awarding body.