Editorial - Let's ditch turgid academic vs vocational debate

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
And do more to get parents behind Wales' ambitious plans for 14-19 learning

To say you think vocational courses should be held in the same esteem as the academic is a bit like announcing you are opposed to the clubbing of baby seals. It is the right thing to say, the obvious thing to say, and you would draw gasps nowadays if you argued the reverse case - at least in education circles.

The case for raising the status of vocational subjects has been made repeatedly in Wales and the rest of the UK by teachers, politicians and academics. So Professor David Egan of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, is entirely right when he says that "we need to move beyond this tired, outdated and turgid debate about the academic and vocational divide" (page 4). But achieving that remains extremely difficult, as Professor Egan knows.

You only have to look at the comparative mess in England, where the country's best chance in a generation for a unified qualifications framework was ditched five years ago, seemingly because Tony Blair was frightened of headlines accusing him of scrapping "gold standard" A-levels. Now England is muddling along with a set of work-based Diplomas that may, to their credit, have led to some great examples of innovative, collaborative teaching, but are still regarded warily by schools for being neither sufficiently academic nor vocational.

Compared with that, Wales does indeed deserve "a collective pat on the back". It has made much greater progress developing a more balanced set of learning pathways for 14- to 19-year-olds.

But it is not time to hang up the bunting yet. For a start, the Welsh Bac is still in its infancy, as it can only be found in 167 schools and colleges. More crucially, as Professor Egan points out, the staying-on rate in education in Wales remains worryingly low by UK and European standards.

So what can be done? The professor has hit on something in his argument that a more distinct philosophy is needed for the 14-19 phase. But the distinctiveness of that phase should not just be an issue for teacher training colleges and university seminars. The ones who need to appreciate it the most are parents.

It is not necessarily parents' fault if they imagine GCSEs - or, for the older ones, O-levels - are a suitable end-point for secondary education. Much more needs to be done to explain to the public, to parents and pupils, what the 14-19 phase now means, particularly given the ambitious scale of change taking place in Wales.

Involving them in the debate about this phase will also provide an ideal opportunity to move beyond the boring academic-vocational divide; indeed, too often it has been parents' outdated views that have helped reinforce it.

Failing that, there is a grimmer reason why we can expect the status of vocational courses to rise. As the philosopher Baroness Warnock warned on these pages recently, we face a new Age of Austerity. Parents should be encouraged to see technical courses as the elite, she wrote - "and in hard economic times this should not be too difficult".

Michael Shaw Opinion editor E michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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