The whole truth

14th September 2012 at 01:00

Am I honest? I like to think so. I don't take what's not mine. Old ladies' handbags are safe with me. But that's the easy part. Can I be quite so certain when it comes to my beliefs and actions? I suspect that, in one important regard at least, I cannot.

The topic concerned is one of the old perennials of education: academic versus vocational. When the GCSE results came out last month, it was clear that the standards debate was firmly back on the agenda. You may choose to believe the ministerial protestations that no pressure was put on the exam boards to tighten up grade boundaries. You may also choose to believe that Father Christmas is a living, breathing person currently domiciled in Lapland.

Before the results furore there was Michael Gove's heavily publicised leak that he was thinking of dumping GCSEs and bringing back the system the Conservatives replaced in the 1980s: O levels and CSEs. Other Tories have since had their say on this. One size can't fit all, they say. Some students are more academically inclined, and they would be better challenged by a return to the rigour of O levels. Others have a vocational bent, and thus would be more suited to CSEs.

If they were being totally candid, however, they would have added that, of course, CSEs were not designed for the offspring of people like themselves. They would expect their children to continue to follow the academic route, and ultimately to take their places on traditional courses at "good" universities. What they mean by "vocationally orientated" young people are those from certain ethnic minorities and the white working classes.

They talk of "parity of esteem". But they know, and we know, that in Britain at least we still can't shake off the traditional class split between hand and brain. This is essentially a social division, a cultural construct, rather than one based on substance. But it is nonetheless deep-seated and enduring.

In FE, we really do believe in parity of esteem. Don't we? I have certainly found the expression tripping off my tongue many times over the years. But am I really being honest with myself? Did my own children take a vocational route? Did they study in an FE college? I think you know that the answer to both questions is no. If they had wanted to do so, I certainly wouldn't have prevented them. But the assumption of the household in which they were brought up was A levels at a sixth form, followed by university.

So, perhaps I do have to admit to an element of hypocrisy, of mental dishonesty. In this, however, I suspect I am not alone.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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