FE Focus Editorial - Equivalence measure has had its day

5th November 2010 at 00:00

The debate over whether children are being offered poor-quality vocational courses at 14 is crucial for colleges, even if not all of them are involved in teaching them. It sets the tone for whether FE will be considered an admired alternative to the route of school sixth form and university, or be regarded in the public imagination in Lord Sugar's words - "where dummkopfs come to learn to make mistakes".

It is a debate which is dominated by the voices of people who have examined the course content of vocational courses, seen that it is different, and made their own value judgment that this means it is worse. That is seized upon by a media culture keen to believe that any attempt to change education is a bid to cheapen it.

There may indeed be poor vocational courses. The way to find them will be studies like that of London Economics, which showed that, in fact, for students at level 2, a mixture of vocational BTEC courses and GCSEs beats an all-academic route (page 1).

Evidence like this showing that employers value and pay more for staff with vocational qualifications will do more for their esteem than any complicated qualifications framework which purports to rank qualifications without ever winning public understanding and confidence.

The notion of equivalence, pushed forward with the best of intentions, has not been good for vocational qualifications. Trying to assert that two things that the public regards as poles apart are in some mysterious, abstract way the same just provokes irritation.

More philosophically, it is also hard to defend. Where does equivalence come from? Complexity or sophistication in a course cannot really be measured and compared across wildly varying course content. And duration or volume of work is a bad proxy for equivalence.

The question could equally be posed: is a history A-level as hard as one in physics? The answer is probably that it depends who you are and where your aptitudes lie, and that no objective comparison is possible. But no one worries about that, content to accept the ineffability of the arts and sciences divide. Well, perhaps it is time for CP Snow's Two Cultures to become three.

Aside from any other considerations, vocational qualifications need to reserve the right to be "easier", if necessary: an industry might only require a shorter course to be proficient. They are also bound to seem easier when they are most enthusiastically taken up by those who are unsuited to academia. But you might as well judge Oxbridge arts courses' difficulty by their alumni's ability to install washing machines.

Equivalence was only ever a proxy for what vocational qualifications needed, which is currency. So the move to judging courses instead by outcomes - whether they lead to work, or higher-level courses - is welcome. With sufficient employer support, perhaps the bewildering attempts to classify courses and levels like pinning down moths can be left in the past.

That leaves the University and College Admission Service and its tariff as an anomaly. Does a centralised rationing system for applications make any sense in Lord Browne's marketplace, where institutions are free to expand? With that out of the way, courses suited for vocational students would be free to accept them on their own terms without anyone fearing it would lead to an influx of barbarians into classics courses.

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