Vocational skills for all

23rd March 2007 at 00:00

Emphasis on the academic route to higher studies can be misguided

There is no problem of parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. The misdiagnosis results in a misguided emphasis on the so-called "vocational route" as an alternative to the academic route to further and higher studies.

To describe qualifications in this way sets up vocational education to fail. Not only is the academic route the predominant means by which people achieve higher levels of education, but it would be absurd to suggest that anyone aiming for HE should start with, say, Entry to Employment (E2E). It is just not designed for that purpose.

A better approach is to remind people that eventually everyone needs to acquire vocational skills. For many, this takes place after gaining a degree. Others may take an apprenticeship after A-levels or a lower-level vocational qualification after GCSEs.

The message should be that progression to higher levels will normally be through the academic route, which determines the point of entry to vocational study.

This analysis dissolves the parity of esteem problem. Subjects like law and architecture are eminently vocational, yet have high status. They don't drive the argument to its logical conclusion, however, which is that vocational qualifications derive their status from the academic level of their entry requirements.

It's not a question of vocational versus academic, just that a vocational course you can get on without GCSEs has less esteem than one that has an A-level entry. Studies of rates of return show that vocational qualifications generally give the same financial return as academic ones one level below.

This is not to say that it should be impossible to progress through a vocational programme. It is clearly possible to progress within a skill area and in some contexts it will be possible to bridge back into the academic route. Not all vocational programmes provide such opportunities, however, and it is a dangerous distortion to see it as their central purpose.

To play down the notion of the vocational route has presentational advantages for colleges. Vocational studies are for everyone. The status of vocational work is reinforced by its universality; and this is a further argument for large general colleges that can offer elements of vocational higher as well as vocational further education. More practically, public funding now focuses on getting people a first full level 2 qualification.

The new entitlement for 19 to 25-year-olds is for support to get a first level 3.

To present vocational and academic studies as parallel routes, however, obscures the fact that typically people need two qualifications at the same level. They need support to progress as far as they can, normally on an academic course, and then to prepare for employment more directly on a vocational programme. A postgraduate teaching qualification is not "higher"

than a degree; a post-A-level Diploma for Personal Assistants is not "higher" than A-levels, but in both cases it makes sense to gain a second qualification at the same level.

The notion that vocational and academic routes are equivalent already leads us to refuse support to anyone who got a clutch of O-levels 30 years ago.

The same logic could limit support for an A-level entrant wanting an apprenticeship or a secretarial programme.

Many years ago, local authorities framed their discretionary awards policies around the principle of supporting people until they achieved their first vocational qualification, after which it was assumed they could afford to invest in them themselves. The principle still makes sense.

Mick Fletcher is a researcher and educational consultant

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