Editorial - Diplomas, doom and a little laugh in Dusseldorf

6th August 2010 at 01:00
The Germans have sorted vocational education, so why are we Brits still incapable?

Later this month, the 8,000 pupils who completed the first two years of the Diploma will receive their final results. There may not be many more of them. Although the vocational qualification has impressed the majority of those who sat it and taught it, its complexity, cost and toughness deterred others. It may not be long for this world (pages 4, 16- 17).

The fate of one nouveau qualification will not concern many of those not involved with it. But it should. Whatever the Diploma's faults, its troubles are the latest testament to this country's inability to sort out vocational education. For 60 years the UK has fretted about its failure to replicate Germany's success. We have planned technical schools, invested in work experience, trumpeted ambitious targets and crafted imaginative qualifications. The result? We're slightly ahead of Belarus in the vocational stakes, but the Germans aren't visiting in droves to gaze in awe at our achievements. Vorsprung durch wishful thinking, as they probably cackle in Dusseldorf.

There has been some progress. Many schools and teachers have worked hard to convince parents and politicians that vocational education is not consolation for the academically disadvantaged but an equally valid means of developing potential. Yet there is still no nationally respected and accepted educational route to a non-academic career. The fact remains that if a student were equally fulfilled and gifted at stripping an engine and scanning a sonnet, he or she would almost certainly be encouraged to avoid the grease and stick to the Bard. Why?

Vocational education has undoubtedly suffered from political vanity and league-table ambitions. It has been warped by a desire to make it what it isn't - academic - and a refusal to judge it on what it should be - relevant. But the real reason why vocational education is not taken seriously in this country isn't just because we have mucked around with it incessantly or deformed it for short-term political gain - it's because the British don't really value the vocations to which it applies.

A couple of seasons ago, The Times ran a story pointing out that the number of top-division professional footballers who had gone to private school was at an all-time high. Snobbery towards the working-class game, it claimed, was in retreat. The average Premier League salary of pound;700,000 probably helped. As we report this week (Magazine, page 10), some independent schools commit serious resources and effort to vocational courses. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that unless they involve lucre, land or livestock, the paying middle classes just aren't interested in non-academic courses. And where they lead, the rest of the country follows.

When, in years to come, David Cameron proudly announces that his daughter has turned down the offer of a place at Jesus in order to study as a carpenter we will know the country has changed. But until that time, our education system should not be blamed for a cultural and social bias it is not in its power to fix.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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