Editorial - Single diploma could silence Civitas criticism

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Myth of the A-level gold standard has not given vocational alternatives a chance

Ever since Cain learned how to build tools for agriculture while Abel sat in the fields reading poetry, solving quadratic equations or whatever, the vocational versus academic debate has raged on, without producing any of the decisive results which Cain achieved over his brother. What can be said in favour of the point of view espoused by think-tank Civitas in its forthcoming book (page 29) is that it recognises that the status quo is an awkward hodge-podge that does not make much sense, as if Cain had tried to plough fields with his brother's shepherd's crook.

Some 14-year-olds are able to study part of the time in college, gaining real practical experience in workshops that compare with industrial environments. Others are shuffled into "vocational" qualifications in schools that may not be taught by industry experts, and which lack the facilities to imitate the workplace. Another unhappy group went over the top of the vocational diploma trench, only to find few of their contemporaries followed them, and now they risk being lost in no man's land with the watchword changed and their qualification going unrecognised.

But the response should not be simply to retreat into the comforting certainties of an education system designed to serve a small elite, which regrettably seems to be what Civitas has to offer. The insistence on the value of subjects such as history and geography, dropped by some in favour of, say, leisure and tourism qualifications, assumes first of all that a student forced to take those subjects will learn anything from another two years rather than go on a sullen strike.

Much of the general knowledge valued by Civitas is also typically found in pre-GCSE studies. A tourism student may, indeed, find it useful to know where countries are on the map, but like generations before her she will probably not care much about the formation of oxbow lakes. And yet her GCSE will occupy itself far more with the latter.

The problems outlined by the think-tank seem far from insurmountable, especially since we have institutions which already combine vocational and academic studies successfully, called colleges. Now, if only someone, somewhere, had dreamed up a flexible, single qualification that would allow students at 14 to pursue a combination of practical and academic work ...

Of course, the depressing thing is the extent to which Sir Mike Tomlinson solved many of these issues nearly six years ago. If his proposals had a flaw, it was perhaps that their complexity made them difficult to sell, although any far-reaching change is bound to baffle at first a public conditioned to believe that A-levels are the one true path.

The real problem was that while Sir Mike had assiduously squared his ideas with bigwigs in education and business, he had forgotten the Fourth Estate. And the irony is that the same newspapers that howled at the idea of ending the A-level brand were the same ones that claim the qualification is debased beyond all recognition.

Perhaps it is time to consider that the A-level brand is the problem, that the myth of a gold standard prevents any serious comparison with vocational routes or a sensible assessment of their own value. A-levels are second only to the England football team for being revered until the results come in, then reviled.

It is true that the idea of a single secondary education diploma for all has had a bad false start, and the notion of the 14-19 stage is not so far much discussed by the new Government. But no education reforms prove easy, and maybe this one deserves a second chance.

Joseph Lee, E joseph.lee@tes.co.uk.

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