From the editor - GCSE compass gives a bum steer on vocational routes

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

The government is engaged in a spot of housekeeping. It thinks that thousands of vocational qualifications aren't fit for purpose and shouldn't count in league tables (pages 12-13). Actually, it isn't so much a tidying up, more a slash and burn of Amazonian logger proportions. Of 3,175 "so-called equivalent qualifications", only 125, or 3.9 per cent, will be included from 2014. And these lucky few will only count for the equivalent of one GCSE, not the multiples some exams were worth in the past.

It justifies this mass ejection because it wants to stop schools signing up to qualifications that boost their performance but fail to benefit pupils. Courses that teach children how to husband fish, care for a horse and identify chipped nails at 50 paces can be taught but schools will no longer get league-table credit for them. It hopes this will deter game-players from foisting unsuitable courses on unsuspecting kids.

This seems sensible, although a closer look at the figures suggests a huge number of proscribed courses were taken by very few pupils. Of course, some vocational courses undoubtedly did more for schools' rankings than they did for pupils' life chances.

But there is a problem. In this country, vocational qualifications seem to start and end with their relationship to academic exams. And once again they are being judged solely through the prism of GCSEs rather than rated on their own merits. That cannot be right.

The previous government was guilty of similar prejudices, though from a different perspective. It tried to dress up vocational courses as more academic than they were, to boost their standing, and ended up making them what they were not. This government is keen to exclude them if they suspect they are masquerading as faux GCSEs. But the starting point for both administrations was the same - the academic gold standard.

Given that this country's track record on vocational education is fragmented, inconsistent and generally pretty deplorable, is this sensible? How are we supposed to convince schools, pupils, colleges and employers that vocational qualifications are worthwhile in themselves if we only relate them to their GCSE equivalents? Is a BTEC in sport or ICT or construction, say, intrinsically valuable because it compares well to a GCSE or because it engages children and equips them with a qualification that allows them to progress?

The Tories are particularly vulnerable to charges that they are lukewarm about the vocational agenda. The Secretary of State delights in making erudite and apposite references to Dryden, Gladstone, Pericles, Virgil and other canonic giants. Yet he struggled to name a single vocational qualification he valued in front of the education select committee this week. In itself, that is hardly a hanging offence. But for an administration widely perceived as elitist and privileged it is a problem.

The government was right to remind the sector that disadvantaged pupils should not be denied the opportunity to study academic qualifications simply because they were disadvantaged or because they were from the type of family that didn't watch David Attenborough or Timewatch. It would be ironic, therefore, for it to preside over an ill-considered switch in the opposite direction. Pupils should take good vocational courses because they suit their needs. And they shouldn't be dissuaded simply because their government thinks it knows better.

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