Years ago, while working in a South London college, I played the role of a "dragon". A colleague, having set up an activity in which her students worked in teams to produce a product, invited me to judge their final group presentations. They justified the value of their entrepreneurial ideas and I, along with my fellow dragons, had to decide how much of a financial investment to offer each of the enterprising teams.
At the end of the activity, those who had fulfilled the task as required and could provide photographic evidence of their participation were awarded credits towards their certificate in personal effectiveness.
This qualification was explicitly identified by the Wolf report in 2011 as part of an unhealthy diet of low-level vocational qualifications fed to 16- to 19-year-old students that have little value in the labour market.
Let's be clear: the Dragons' Den-style game was fun. The students who took part enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. They learned something worthwhile. But if the point of it was to prepare students for the workplace, what type of workplace did the author of this qualification imagine they were going to? The skills accredited were so unbearably light that the course did not achieve what was intended.
These lesser qualifications have no exchange value. In fact, in the labour market their possession is the opposite; they can be to the detriment of the holder rather than to their competitive advantage.
Let's imagine a young person who has no qualifications to list on their CV. They are able to speak with confidence, get along with colleagues, come up with good ideas and establish themselves as a worthwhile member of a team. In one of those rare jobs that involve a minimal level of writing, they get by. I know that jobs without qualifications are rare - I know jobs are rare - but the absence of a qualification does not necessarily equate to the absence of a particular skill and therefore rule out the possibility of a career.
Now imagine that someone equally talented decides to apply for the same job but includes on their CV a qualification in literacy, level 1. Instead of a blank CV, they now have one that identifies them as someone who registered on, attended, took and passed a very low-level qualification. They are no longer defined as a person with unspecified potential for workplace savvy but as someone who has a limited level of skill. So, counter-intuitively, a qualification has placed a job that they might be able to do beyond their grasp.
Killing with kindness
Whether the exchange value of a qualification matters or not depends on the purpose attached to accreditation. A level 1 certificate, even a few units towards a level 1 qualification, might be the success that generates success.
Students are rightly proud of their accomplishments. As a teacher, so am I. This single credit from a single module is as good a place to start as any. After all, the dividing line for educational inequality is not the vocational versus the academic. It is between those with and those without qualifications.
The trouble is, when treated in this way, qualifications become something of a proxy. They recognise and reward achievement but really they are a therapeutic rather than a pedagogic intervention. The certificate persuades those who did not do well in school, the dependent thinkers with car-crash lives, that they can achieve something. This can be a good thing, but what they have learned, the use to which it may be put and its exchange value is never directly addressed.
Low-level certification reassures, supports and encourages. It meets the emotional needs of a student - as long as the student is imagined as someone in need of emotional support; imagined as a particular sort of diminished self that lacks agency.
This represents a dangerous and disturbing shift in post-16 education towards a caring and nurturing ethos, where pedagogy is displaced and pastoralism becomes not a means to an end but an end in its own right. All too often this therapeutic approach does not allow students to be perceived as citizens who engage in political, moral and other kinds of debates.
The flip side of this coin is that targets, retention data, success rates, three-year trends - the things that college managers need - are just big magic numbers. It doesn't actually matter what lecturers do, as long as they do it well. FE is complicit in a process of churning out qualifications of dubious value, qualifications that enable colleges to hit their targets. But are they missing the point in hitting the target but not challenging the content of the qualifications themselves?
Entangled in these compromises, it is hardly surprising that the value of awards such as these has been reduced. Indeed, Ofqual has recently announced a major overhaul of the whole system of accreditation. In recommending the withdrawal of vocational qualifications, Professor Alison Wolf might well have authored the only bit of recent post-16 policy that everyone can feel some sympathy towards.
Dr Carol Azumah Dennis is programme director for teaching in the lifelong learning sector at the University of Hull's Centre for Educational Studies