FEfocus Editorial - Nice idea, shame about the packaging

3rd June 2011 at 01:00

The failure of the qualifications and credit framework (QCF) to attract any interest from the public (page 1) is just the latest example of innovation in education failing dismally in the marketplace. Rather like the diploma, it represented a long-held wish of educationalists - in this case for a transferable system of credits to recognise part- qualifications; for the diploma, an integration of vocational and academic pathways - which seemed visionary but fell utterly flat.

Two potential conclusions could be drawn from this: first, that educationalists are out of touch, and that new ideas are probably terrible and should be avoided at all costs.

Alternatively, the ideas might not be bad, but we are not implementing them well or explaining them to the public.

There are many - politicians, pundits, saloon-bar bores - who take the former view. Any potential change to the qualifications system is viewed as a threat to the "gold standard" of A-levels, a gold standard which has been simultaneously viewed as hopelessly debased since whenever the speaker took his exams.

Part of the QCF was doomed by this. The notion of "equivalence" between qualifications has lost so much credibility that it is now a liability for vocational qualifications.

The QCF was the most elaborate development yet of the notion that all qualifications can be mapped on to a system of levels, from the pre-GCSE up to PhDs. Theoretically, if one can compare an A-level in art to one in physics, it is hardly a stretch to include electrical engineering, and from there why not include health and social care and so on?

But it faced a combination of long-established prejudice towards newer subjects in education - even teaching English literature was controversial enough well into the 20th century - and the tendency of some schools to play the system for the maximum qualification equivalence for the minimum of difficulty. The result is instinctive mockery that a qualification in hair and beauty can possibly be worth the same as one in Latin.

Clearly not, if one wants to be a classical scholar; nor, equally, if one wants to work in a salon. Emphasising the appropriateness of qualifications and what they can do for students is the path to restoring credibility for vocational qualifications, not an arbitrary numbers game.

What is lost by the rejection of the QCF is an admirable attempt to allow students to get credit for partial qualifications, to move between institutions or drop and resume their studies. It is true that the Ofqual report found no demand, just as there was no demand for the vocational diplomas. But elsewhere, in US community colleges for instance, transferable credit is an essential part of educational life.

Often we do not know we need or want something until it has been invented and marketed to us. If iPods had been launched upon the world like the QCF, the Sony Discman would still reign supreme. iPods were new and confusing, but the sales pitch was clear and compelling: "1,000 songs in your pocket." Soon, we capitulated in our millions.

Politics is like the sales and marketing division of policy ideas. Without political backing, wonks and technocrats might as well leave their ideas on the drawing board, as the brains behind the QCF have learnt.

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