Quit the carping and pitch in

24th December 2010 at 00:00
It's time to stop the whinging and to up the perception of vocational qualifications

Predictions are a mug's game, but one consequence of the Wolf review of vocational education seems clear enough already: there will be an orgy of handwringing that vocational qualifications are perceived as second rate.

Such complaints are self-fulfilling prophesies: if you tell people often enough that they believe something is poor quality, that is how they will perceive it. Those concerned should consider a new year's resolution to talk a little less about negative perceptions, and focus on the real and proven advantages - not least the opportunity to earn while studying instead of piling up debt.

But the notion that vocational education is for those who cannot hack it in the rough, tough world of academia will be built into our education system for as long as pupils follow a recognisably academic course by default, and then make a choice at 14 or 16 to continue or change tack.

The submission from the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) may offer an insight into Government thinking ahead of Professor Wolf's report. It is an odd situation to have part of a government department submitting a consultation response to a review commissioned by its own parent body, castigating the very system it runs, but there we are. In keeping with the Government's emphasis - and surely not by coincidence - the submission recommends a focus on apprenticeships. There is an advantage in this single-mindedness in that it helps to create the idea of a vocational gold standard to rival A-levels, but judged on its own terms, rather than by academic standards.

But there is a reason why FE is so complex and varied: it has to accommodate so many complexities in students' lives. While we should resist the idea that vocational qualifications are only for academic failures, it is true that they need to accommodate them. Many do not have the prior qualifications expected even for level 2 apprenticeships; the Coalition, however, wants to make level 3 the standard.

The choice is likely to be between accepting something akin to the current confusing patchwork of qualifications to suit all abilities, or stretching the definition of "apprenticeship" to breaking point, thereby jeopardising whatever confidence the name commands.

But as the SFA notes, a focus on apprenticeships necessitates much greater involvement by employers in education for 14- to 16-year-olds. That would be no bad thing: many high-profile companies have carped for too long from the sidelines about the supposedly low quality of students - although surveys of those that actually recruit teenagers are positive about their readiness for work.

Vocational education needs the seal of approval from business, but perhaps employers have the most to learn. If those with the greatest knowledge of the products of our education system are the most upbeat, increasing employers' understanding might be the first step to getting over the problem of esteem.

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