FEfocus Editorial - We've won the battle, but not the status war

4th March 2011 at 00:00

As victories go, it is more like the evacuation of Dunkirk than the capture of the Reichstag. Professor Alison Wolf's recommendation that the qualifications of school teachers and FE lecturers should be regarded as equivalent helps to stop the decline in status for college staff, but does not yet win back much lost ground.

A few grizzled veterans in the staffroom will remember a time when lecturers were in fact paid more than staff in schools and would have seen themselves more in the company of university academics. Now, just gaining equivalent status with school teachers is a cause for celebration.

Nevertheless, it does address some glaring anomalies for 16-19 teachers. Never again will naive young hopefuls appear on the FE Focus online forums to bemoan that their FE-only PGCE had limited their career options in a way which no one thought to explain to them.

The Institute for Learning is the villain of the moment among lecturers for more than doubling its fees, but it deserves some credit for having pushed this issue relentlessly. Whether it gets any is a different story, and may well depend on a few factors which will govern whether this is a substantial rather than a symbolic reform.

Chief among these is whether the equivalence in status leads to an equivalence in pay. That will not happen unless there is a real migration of staff between the schools sector and FE, forcing colleges to compete on salary. At the moment, only a handful of teachers cross the frontier each year. No doubt that is partly because of the barriers which Professor Wolf is beginning to break down. But it also means that there must be job opportunities for lecturers in schools, which means real vocational options for pupils. Otherwise we may find a two-tier system within colleges, where A-level teachers command higher salaries because they can threaten to leave for a more lucrative sector.

But the prospect of real practical learning within schools has probably been damaged by Wolf's trashing of the existing use of vocational study as a soft option to game the exam league tables. No matter that she has a nuanced view on the value of practical study along with broad, transferable skills - her observations on this flatter too many mass media prejudices not to become the main story.

Professor Wolf redoubles her attack by denouncing the "misguided parity of esteem" of vocational and academic qualifications. This also feels like a mistake.

Arguably, the system where Government simply dictated that two qualifications were of the same supposed value was a disaster which had exactly the opposite effect: the public could see that this obscured obvious differences and was left feeling resentful and suspicious of a con.

That is not to say that vocational qualifications cannot be valued as highly as academic ones. But they need to earn that esteem by providing job opportunities at a cost vastly lower than university and with opportunities to earn while you study, all without any ceilings on career promotion. That is not an unrealistic aim.

But it is hard to see the sense in Professor Wolf demanding equality for teachers of vocational subjects, while giving ammunition to those who would denigrate what they teach.

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