Parity teeters on a knife-edge

19th October 2007 at 01:00

I almost laughed out loud, though perhaps a tear or two might have been the more appropriate reaction. Either way, I could still hardly believe what I was reading: that someone would think it worth spending thousands of pounds to try and persuade Guardian readers not to send their children to university.

But there it was - a full page advertisement in the Saturday edition, designed to do just that. The ad was certainly clever, though you really need to see it to get the full effect. The impact derives from the image - a photo-montage depicting an academic hat on one side and a portable platform for cement on the other. "They're both mortar boards," run the words underneath, "but why do you value them so differently?"

The rest of the copy cogently puts the case for vocational training to be valued just as highly as academic education. University isn't the be all and end all, it argues, concluding: "The vocational route, with the opportunities it offers, could be right for your kids."

Publishing the ad in a broadsheet is what you might call taking the fight to the enemy. Or you could see it as pouring money down the drain. Either way, Edge, the educational foundation responsible for placing it, seems to have plenty to pour.

Earlier this year it launched a high-profile television commercial campaign promoting the same message: non-academic courses are not inferior, just different. There is also a well-appointed website, which glows with optimism and enthusiasm for the cause. This time, they proclaim, if we push hard enough, we really can make the breakthrough.

But can they? Can Edge, for all its razzmatazz and resources, really succeed where others have so signally failed? After all, that bias in favour of things academic is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Undoubtedly part of this is down to social class. We may not have many tradesmen's entrances or public bars any more, but the attitudes that produced them haven't entirely disappeared.

Social mobility - at least upward - means you leave the overalls behind. My father was a semi-skilled factory worker. His four children are all either teachers or social workers. No one doubts that we have "bettered" ourselves. Of his eight grandchildren, seven have either been university educated or are about to be. In conventional terms, they have taken a further step up the social ladder.

In FE you see yourself as very much on the front line of this debate. I teach an academic subject - English - but have often taught it to vocational students. Intellectually I accept the "parity of esteem" case. In practice, I have sometimes found myself recommending vocational courses to students perceived as being weak academically. In this I know I am not alone. The issue, however, generates such evasion and double-talk that it's often hard to know just what people on the ground really think.

Also, you can't help but notice that recent developments in FE seem calculated to work in entirely the opposite direction. Some colleges have dropped out of academic work, leaving the field open to sixth forms, either in schools or specialist sixth-form colleges. Others have set up sixth-form "centres" as virtual colleges within colleges. These may not be physically surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but as you so often find in pubs close to building sites, the message is clear enough: no work clothes or dirty boots.

No doubt Edge anticipates at least having the Government on board. But the trouble is that on this issue Governments of all complexions habitually speak with forked tongues. Up front they proclaim their support for "parity", but when it comes to doing anything about it they always bottle out. Abolishing the "gold standard" of A-level is just too big an electoral gamble. So instead they make more fine speeches and look helplessly on as their "vocational A-levels" or "new diplomas" wither on the vine.

Until that changes, Edge, for all its glitzy campaigning and rattling of high-profile tambourines, is more likely to be blunted than cutting.

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